A grandson of one of the original settlers of the Penn colony, George Clymer established himself as a major figure in both the struggle for independence and the
n the formation of a new nation. He is one of only 6 men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He was an ardent and vocal advocate of independence from Britain and a tireless proponent of a strong, united central government – both views putting him in frequent conflict with the more cautious Quaker-led powers of the Pennsylvania colony. During the war he served twice in the Continental Congress, chairing committees that addressed the various and pressing issues of maintaining a constant flow of materiel and food for the perpetually undersupplied army, often volunteering to make trips at great personal risk to ascertain first-hand the conditions on the battlefront when others refused to go. When, Congress left Philadelphia for Baltimore during the winter of 1776 in panic at the advance of the British, Clymer stayed as one of three in an Executive Committee to ensure that the army was supplied and the government continued to function. Late in the war, as the army was running out of such basic stocks as flour, and the funds to resupply were not to be found, he was instrumental in chartering a bank to raise the money privately, a service that according to the Commissioner General of the Continental Army quite literally saved the army from dissolution. After the war, Clymer continued his efforts for a closer union; and once the Constitution was sent to the states, he played a key role in getting it ratified in Pennsylvania, the second state to do so, and a major impetus to the remaining states to follow suit. As a committed Federalist, he supported President Washington while a member of the House of Representatives in the first Congress. Washington relied on him as a trusted emissary, sending him to enforce the new whiskey excise taxes in western Pennsylvania, and then negotiate a vital treaty with the Creek Indians. After leaving the government, in 1804 at the age of 64 he helped found and became the first president of the Philadelphia Bank, as he also did in 1805 for the new Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Although not a farmer himself, he helped organize the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, serving as vice-president, and while not himself an alumnus of the college that became The University of Pennsylvania, he served as a trustee for twenty-two years. His marriage to Elizabeth Meredith, daughter of a wealthy and influential Philadelphia merchant, lasted forty-seven years, until his death, and resulted in eight children, of whom five survived to adulthood.
George Clymer’s parents arrived in Philadelphia from England sometime before 1710. After becoming a freeman in 1717, Richard, a block maker by training, achieved no small measure of success as a trader by the time he died in 1734, leaving to his two sons a house, a wharf, several ships, several hundred acres of land in New Jersey, and four Negro slaves. Christopher, an Episcopalian, married Deborah Fitzwater, who was disowned by her Quaker brethren for marrying outside the faith. Her father, George Fitzwater, had arrived with William Penn and the first settlers on the Welcome, and established himself as a successful merchant. George Clymer was the only one of three children to survive, although his mother Deborah died before he was two. Left in the care of his mother’s sister Hannah and her husband William Coleman, themselves childless, George was orphaned at the age of seven. His father’s portion of the sizeable inheritance had dwindled considerably; although having seen some success as a captain of a privateer preying on French merchantmen in the Caribbean, Christopher left him very little – a few personal items and a Negro man, who died within a year. But George’s grandfather rectified the situation, favoring him in his will when he died in 1750, leaving him at the age of eleven with means of his own.
While the record is scant, it indicates that the young Clymer had a favored upbringing. William Coleman rose from a clerk to owning a very successful dry goods business; his home, which he remodeled extensively during his lifetime, became the mansion known as Woodford – still standing as one of the loveliest examples of colonial architecture in Fairmont Park. As was customary in the tight-knit society of colonial America, mercantile success was intertwined with political advancement, and in 1739 he was elected to the Philadelphia Common Council, then clerk of the city court, and then finally in 1758 he earned a lifetime appointment as associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, eventually rising to second to the chief justice. As young bachelors in their twenties, Coleman became close friends with Benjamin Franklin. With another friend, Coleman provided the financial backing for Franklin to set himself up in business as an independent printer; but beyond business, he partnered with Franklin in many of his social projects, working with him to establish the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and the College and Academy of Philadelphia (the future University of Pennsylvania). Showing the kind of firm character and resolve that Clymer later emulated, Coleman didn’t hesitate to contravene the pacifist wishes of the Quaker community and work with Franklin to arm the city and build fortifications to protect against the very real threat of French and Spanish marauders – a service for which he was formally ostracized by the Society of Friends. Although the couple never formally adopted Clymer, when Coleman died in 1769, he left the bulk of his estate to George – although Woodford was ordered to be sold, in no small part to finance the freeing of his three slaves and provide funds for the apprenticeships of their children.
Raised in the congenial atmosphere of Woodford, Clymer had no formal education, although he apparently read voraciously – a favorite author being Jonathan Swift. Although his uncle was a founder and first treasurer of the college which later became the University of Pennsylvania, Clymer didn’t attend the school. Coleman introduced him at an early age to his business, with Clymer’s name appearing in records as early as the age of fourteen, and administering documents himself by seventeen. For reasons unknown – Clymer was on excellent terms with his uncle – he set out on his own in 1759, using his inheritance to establish a trading firm. The firm proving to be successful, in 1765 he married Elizabeth Meredith, the daughter of Reese Meredith, a Philadelphia merchant second in wealth only to Robert Morris. As with Clymer’s own parents, Elizabeth was disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside the faith. The lapse did not affect the family’s relationship with their daughter or their new son-in-law, however, for Clymer was soon a partner in a very successful trading firm with his father and brother-in-law Samuel. Reese Meredith, years before, had struck up a conversation with a young Virginia planter he saw sitting alone in a public house, and invited him to stay at his house; and ever after that, when George Washington visited Philadelphia, he stayed with the Merediths.
Clymer’s marriage to Elizabeth lasted until his death forty-seven years later; she outlived him by only two years. Of their eight children, five survived to adulthood. While few letters between then survive, their relationship was evidently congenial and close – when Clymer removed his family to a farm in Chester, south of Philadelphia, the winter the city was in danger of attack by the British, he would regularly take to his horse late in the afternoon to make the twenty-five mile ride to spend the night with them – leaving at dawn to return to the city. When the British did subsequently take Philadelphia, and Clymer and his family had relocated with Congress to York, the Redcoats and their Tory allies made a detour to vandalize and loot the house (arriving in the city, they set upon the same task on another house, stopping only when told they had the wrong place).
Through family connections Clymer was deeply and tightly woven into the upper reaches of power in Philadelphia society. His brother-in-law Samuel married Margaret Cadwalader, also the daughter of a prominent merchant. His sister-in-law Ann married Henry Hill, the wealthiest wine merchant in Philadelphia (Washington was one of his major clients). Clymer’s partnership with the Merediths allowed him to pursue his political interests. In 1769 he was elected to the Philadelphia Common Council, serving the next six years. In 1772 he was appointed Justice of the Peace, and again for the next two years; a very important position, it was the panel from which judges were chosen. In 1774 he was appointed as associate justice of City Court (this despite not being a lawyer).
At the same time Clymer was becoming more and more militant in his opposition to Britain’s increasing control over trade in the 1760’s. He joined the Proprietary Party, which advocated active resistance. In 1765, along with four hundred of Philadelphia’s merchants, he signed a non-importation agreement in response to the Stamp Act; he then helped organize a boycott of the even more restrictive Townshend Duties. He authored many broadsides and pamphlets (under pseudonyms, as was the custom of the time). However, Clymer’s outspoken and vocal views on liberty and independence were in advance of general acceptance by the great majority of influential Philadelphians; as Quakers, opposed to actions that could very well lead to open hostilities and war, they continued to counsel caution and attempts to conciliate the Crown. However, while in the minority, Clymer was far from alone; just as vocal, his brother-in-law Samuel was also disowned by the Society of Friends for his militancy. And while Samuel’s wife Margaret’s own views are not known, her brothers were ardent patriots. At the onset of hostilities, John Cadwalader organized the famed 3rd Battalion of City Troops, the so-called ‘Silk Stocking’ troop; he went on to serve as a trusted officer at the side of Washington at Brandywine and Princeton. And while the wine merchant Hill had lived for a number of years in London, he too expressed revolutionary sentiments. Even so, the fact that Clymer was so radical in his views, and yet still advancing in the political hierarchy demonstrates that, while in the minority, those views were still accepted by the mainstream.
In 1773 Clymer went to Boston in search of medical treatment for a chest ailment. While there he met the leading revolutionaries (ironically enough, his introduction to Josiah Quincy, a leading revolutionary, was a personal letter from Quaker lawyer John Dickinson, a leading voice of caution and conciliation with the Crown). He became a close friend of Quincy, who with John Adams had successfully defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre, and a great admirer of the fiery radical, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. In his letters he wrote with fervent support of the Boston radicals, while at the same time disparaging the more cautious Philadelphia and New York merchants, seeing them as being narrowly self-serving.
The Tea Act of 1773 was a catalyst for resistance, both nationally, and for Clymer. The Boston patriots communicated with the leading Whig radicals in Philadelphia – Clymer and Thomas Mifflin – and established a committee of correspondence to coordinate information and resistance. News arrived of the Boston Tea Party; on December 26th, the ship arrived downriver from Philadelphia with its shipment of tea. Clymer convinced the captain to return to England without attempting to unload his cargo. However, Parliament immediately passed the Coercive Acts, closing Boston Harbor. When Paul Revere arrived in Philadelphia in May with a copy of the Boston Circular Letter, detailing the blockade, moderates in the city, and even the Whig party, advocated caution and negotiation. Clymer was outspoken in his support of the Boston patriots and insisted on an immediate embargo of trade with Britain; he also denounced fellow merchants for acting in their own self-interest, rather than the common good. He opposed any attempts at conciliation in a provincial conference. Returning to Boston, he found a crucial transformation: the British soldiers had become an alien occupying force, yet one that was no longer in control.
Clymer’s views were rejected in favor of the moderates, who were selected to go as delegates to the First Continental Congress. However, at the Congress Clymer’s views won out, with the radicals voting to form an Association to enforce a national boycott on imports by the end of the year, with a ban on exports the following autumn. More crucially for Clymer, the Congress also voted to establish local committees to enforce the decisions; he was elected to the new Philadelphia City Committee, where he played a prominent role in acts of open opposition to the Crown. As often happened, his views soon became mainstream: in April, over 8,000 Philadelphians gathered to hear the reports of fighting at Lexington and Concord. The City Troops were immediately formed, and Clymer made a captain of the Silk Stocking brigade – but he resigned his commission to devote his energies to the pressing issue of procuring munitions for the new army. He was appointed Joint Treasurer of the United Colonies by Congress. In addition to his efforts on behalf of the new Congress and raising an army, he stayed quite active on the Philadelphia City Committee, which due to the increasing regulation of the local economy was becoming the effective government of the province of Pennsylvania. As one of three chairs of the committee, serving in rotation, he confronted the moderates and Quakers to establish an armed militia. He joined the Committee of Safety, led by Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris, to arm and fortify the province.
Against the backdrop of heavy fighting around New York, Clymer’s efforts were devoted to all aspects of the mobilization for war: enlistment, munitions, fortifications, ammunition, and gunpowder – especially the production of saltpeter, a crucial ingredient. He was elected to the new Provincial Assembly in May of 1776 as a radical candidate of the radical party; with a new committee he rewrote the instructions to the delegates to Congress removing the prohibition of voting for independence, leaving it to each individual delegate’s conscience. Ironically, even though Clymer ultimately signed the Declaration, he was not himself a member of the delegation when independence was voted July 2nd. The Pennsylvania delegation voted for independence by the slimmest majority, with several members absent. Clymer, along with several others, was elected a member of a new delegation at the Pennsylvania constitutional convention on July 20th, and they immediately signed the so-called ‘engrossed’ document, which had been left open for this express purpose.
Before taking his seat in the Continental Congress, Clymer spent the balance of the summer working on the new state constitution at the convention. It was to prove to be a huge disappointment; in the end Clymer, along with twenty-two of ninety-six delegates, refused to sign the completed document. While the general grounds for opposition are known, Clymer’s own personal reasons are not. He set off on a trip for Congress to examine the defenses and conditions at Ticonderoga, returning a month later to discover he had been elected to the new provincial Assembly and Council as a leading anti-constitutionalist. Efforts at reform proving unavailing, he resigned his seat when the state government was organized in 177, forming the opposition Republican Society, where he was subjected to virulent personal attacks as a traitor and conspirator, booth in and out of office, until the constitution was ultimately revoked fourteen years later.
However, Clymer’s attention at this time was very much on the national crisis of war. He served in the Continental Congress in 1776-77, and then from 1780-82; while state politics prevented his continual service as a delegate, he nevertheless devoted his time almost completely to the cause. That first assignment, to Saratoga and Ticonderoga, was instrumental in focusing Congress’ attention on matters of supply, and even more important, the deplorable plight of the wounded and sick Continentals. In his attention to hospital administration he demonstrated his attention to the mundane and even boring but vital issues of procurement and supply: of those factors essential to the working of the army. He subsequently served on similar committees, frequently as an investigator in the field: army supply, hospital conditions, Indian affairs, frontier defenses, and, ultimately, national finance.
When Congress, in panic at the advance of the British army on Philadelphia, fled to Baltimore, Clymer remained behind with fellow Philadelphian Robert Morris and George Walton, a delegate from Georgia, as members of an Executive Committee to carry on with administrative work that could not be readily shifted – primarily keeping Washington and the army supplied. They opened an office in Philadelphia, maintaining it until it became superfluous when Congress returned in March. Although Clymer had moved his family to a farm in Chester, twenty-five miles south of Philadelphia, he frequently set out on horseback late in the day to spend the night with them, returning at dawn the next day. In September, when the British did finally take Philadelphia, he removed with his family to York, where Congress relocated (the Assembly went to Lancaster).
With conditions rapidly deteriorating on the western frontier, and reports of treasonous behavior at the key position of Fort Pitt, Clymer volunteered to go investigate when several other members declined. Of equal concern to the state of the Continental forces was restoring peaceful relations with the Delware and Shawnee Indians, who were threatening to turn their allegiance to the British. Clymer was at Fort Pitt for four months, two of them waiting for the Virginia delegate, delayed by severe winter weather. He was distinctly unimpressed by the quality of the frontiersman, finding them mendacious, venal, and unwilling or unable to forego their own personal interests in service of the cause. He grew to doubt their ability to hold the frontier at all. He did, however, achieve success in repairing relations with the Indians.
Upon his return, provincial politics prevented his re-election to Congress, so for the next two years he devoted his time to his own commercial interests. After the British abandoned Philadelphia in the summer of 1778 Clymer returned with his family, despite rampant inflation. His affairs were mainly concerned with land; he had inherited large tracts from his father-in-law that ranged from Kentucky to Pennsylvania and the New York frontier. But by spring 1780 the Revolutionary cause was in a parlous state; the paper money was worthless, the procurement system had completely broken down, the states refused all requests for funds, and the army was quite literally running out of supplies – even the stocks of flour were almost completely exhausted. Washington was doubtful the army could stay together until the harvest. The Philadelphia merchants, led by Clymer, banded together to personally charter a private bank, the Pennsylvania Bank, and raised funds that were used to purchase desperately needed supplies, until Congress could get around to paying for them. With Clymer as a co-director, it grew into a huge operation, with representatives scouring the countryside in search of flour. In the end thousands of barrels of flour and bushels of corn, along with casks of rum and hundreds of tents, were delivered to the army. Clymer and the others won the undying gratitude of Washington, while the Commissioner General of the Army wrote that the actions of the bank had against all expectations kept the army from dissolution. Alexander Hamilton saw in it the seeds of one of his prize goals, a national bank. Even so, within a short time personal accusations of privateering were circulated, even though the bank had been chartered as a non-profit, and as Clymer pointed out, not only did none of the participants make a profit, many subscribers lost money.
As a result of his efforts with the Pennsylvania Bank, Clymer was again appointed to Congress. He returned to find dire financial distress and joined the finance committee, run by Robert Morris, who was voted head of a new Department of Finance in May 1781, with a specific mandate to charter a new national bank. Clymer, named to help with subscriptions, set out on a fruitless mission as a deputy to solicit funds in the southern states; the northern representative had no more success. Clymer served on several other committees, the most important of which was to consider admitting Vermont as a new state. Although he greatly favored the idea, the proposal ran afoul of state’s rights, since it was to be foirmed of land carved out of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. He did finally have the satisfaction of voting for statehood for Vermont as member of the House of Representatives in the First Federal Congress.
Leaving Congress in late 1782, Clymer moved his family to a home near Princeton and officially ‘retired.’ It didn’t last long; by 1784 he had moved back to Philadelphia, re-entering the political fray with an appointment in 1785 to the Standing Commercial Committee of 13. The economy was in a dire state, nearly a depression, and Clymer became ever more convinced that the only hope for the states was a Federal Union, with the ability to levy taxes and control commerce. He worked to shore up the declining authority of Congress, and was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he was a strong voice for a powerful centralized national government. Immediately following the Convention, in the final moments before adjournment of the state Assembly, he used an adroit maneuver to push through enabling legislation for a state ratifying convention. In short order Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the new Constitution, providing an enormous impetus to the remaining states to follow suit.
Elected as a Representative to the first federal Congress, Clymer proved to be a staunch and unwavering Federalist and supporter of President Washington. He pressed for measures to strengthen the finances of the new government: high duties on imports, assumption of the war debt, the Bank of the United Sates, and a liquor excise tax. Choosing not to run for re-election, he was appointed by Washington as Supervisor of revenue for Pennsylvania to enact the new excise tax. This brought him into close personal contact with his old friends, the former frontiersman of western Pennsylvania, of whom he found his low opinion not in need of change. He served in the role for three years, often at great risk, resigning in 1794, just prior to the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1796 Washington again called him back from private life, appointing him one of three commissioners to negotiate a new treaty with the Creek and Seminole Indians in Georgia. Clymer, favorably disposed to the Indians based on his previous contact during the war, sided with the Creeks against what he believed to be illegal and rapacious attempts to annex their land. The resulting treaty helped turn the southern tribes from their dependence on Spanish trade to an alliance with their northern neighbors.
After negotiating the treaty, Clymer again returned to private life. Far from retiring, however, in 1803, at the age of 64, he became the president of the newly chartered Philadelphia Bank, remaining in that post until his death in 1813. He helped found the new Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1805, also serving as president until his death. He lent his efforts to organizing the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, serving as vice president, and for twenty-two years also served as trustee for the College and Academy of Philadelphia.
George Clymer died January 23rd, 1813, after a brief illness, at the home of his son Henry, and laid to rest in a Quaker burial ground near Trenton. In his service to his country, Clymer proved to be quintessentially American: eminently pragmatic and practical, but with a vision of the future to match.