Gov. Joseph C. Yates
Gov. Joseph Christopher Yates' term in office was just a moment in Albany's
considerable influence on state and national politics, which traces back to
1754. It was in that year that Benjamin
Franklin and representatives of eleven American colonies met
in Albany to consider, for the first time, a government with significant
independence from England. The Albany Plan of Union was thus drafted.
Two political parties had formed in the United States after the
Revolution, both with significant histories in Albany. Those who supported
the power of land-ownership were Federalists, and those with ties to the
populace were Anti-Federalists. These groups would eventually become the
Republicans and Democrats. In Albany their differences became acute
when the city was designated the state capital in 1797 and politics centered
there. In the early 19th century, Albany was the political power of the north
within both parties.
The two governors from the Clinton family - George and his nephew
DeWitt - headed a Federalist regime for many years with the support of
the Livingstons of Livingston Manor and the Van Rensselaer patroons.
Martin Van Buren, a Kinderhook lawyer, led a growing faction of dissenters
that, although Anti-Federalists, became known as the "Bucktail Regency," so
named for their trademark raccoon-skin hats. Van Buren was adept at
gaining support for his ideology and he rallied many in various parts of the
state who could further the populist cause. One of his bastions was the
Yates family of Schenectady.
Joseph C. Yates is not considered to have been the most dynamic of his
family, but his political career was impressive. He studied law and was
admitted to the bar in 1792.(1) He became the first mayor of Schenectady
when the city was chartered in 1798. In 1806 he was elected to the State
Senate and served as a Justice of the State Supreme Court from 1808 to
1822. Yates' concerns in Schenectady did not abate. One of the most
significant was Union College. He was a founding trustee of the school and
was involved in the gradual creation of an elegant campus of national
When serving as a U. S. Senator, Martin Van Buren wooed Yates to run
for Governor of New York. Yates recognized the popularity of the
incumbant DeWitt Clinton and wisely declined. In 1821 Clinton's political
position was weakened and Van Buren, still heading the local Anti-
Federalists, turned to Yates once again to accept that party's candidacy. It is
widely stated that the Anti-Federalist powers considered Yates to be
unwilling to take personal political initiative and would be a mouthpiece for
Van Buren and his cronies. On a wave of confidence given to the Anti-
Federalists, particularly Albany's Bucktails, Yates was elected governor in
November of 1822. He chose the Stafford House to rent as his “executive
John Stafford died in 1819, leaving debts which forced his heirs to rent
his Madison Street house. The Stafford family had strong connections to
local Anti-Federalist politics. John Stafford was one of those who signed a
letter of support for the foundation of the Albany Argus, which would
become the primary Anti-Federalist paper in the state outside New York
City. Both houses of the Stafford brothers (John and Spencer) are said to have hosted the
Bucktail leaders. Combined with the sheer magnificence of John's house, it
was a logical choice for Gov. Yates.
Correspondence in the Van Buren papers dated December of 1822
mentions that “Yates is preparing to move” and “he has taken the Stafford
House” and “alterations are being made to enlarge the lower rooms."(2) The
extent of the alterations at the house makes Yates' intentions clear. He
wanted to entertain in impressive spaces. The Stafford House, which had
set the style for many other local houses, had probably been eclipsed in
elaboration by one of those by 1822. Stephen Van Rensselaer IV had his
house built in the "Stafford” style, but it was larger. It was the Van
Rensselaer house that Yates may have eyed as a model for his alterations, and he may have hired the architect Philip Hooker to
plan them. Hooker was the pre-eminent designer in the Albany area and there is much evidence to credit him with the "Stafford" style.
The only way the lower rooms could be enlarged without expanding
beyond the existing exterior walls (which did not occur) was to remove
some interior walls. Yates (and/or Hooker) probably did away with the dividing walls
between the front and back rooms to create one large reception area. The
walls had been load-bearing, so ornamented columns may have been
inserted in their place. An oval window that occurred in the intermediate
space would then have become a magnificent focal point of the room.
Another notable change at the Stafford House was a wall built in the
entry hall to create a vestibule. The vestibule door was like exterior
doorways in other houses, with sidelights and a fanlight above. Since
porticoes were rarely used in Federal period Albany, this arrangement
allowed guests to come in from inclement weather to rearrange hair, hats
and clothing before being presented to the Governor.
Yates surely hosted some of the most prominent people who either lived
in or passed through upstate New York during his governorship. What they
likely found at the Stafford House was impressive. First, the bold, pinkish
brownstone trim framing the front door, with its peculiar decoration and
triumphal arch form. Then the elaborate vestibule wall just inside the entry.
Beyond the vestibule the visitor passed under a decorated arch supported by
columns that Yates apparently had retained from the original design of 1811. To the
rear of the hallway, the upsweep of the staircase led the eye to what
was likely a large oval window at the curve of the stair before the second floor
landing. With a turn to the left through a doorway, there perhaps was the
grand ballroom with the six-foot oval window and ornate columns flanking
it. The room was probably decorated with the fancy-painted Sheraton-style
furniture Yates owned(3) and an ornate over-mantel mirror five feet
wide, festooned with gilded plaster details (left and below).
Nearly every East Coast city has a story to tell about the visit in 1824 of
the Marquis de Lafayette, the celebrated Revolutionary War general. The
American populace was delirious over the man and expressed their emotions
in throngs of crowds. Lafayette's assistant and traveling companion wrote
of the 1824 trip and was often concerned for Lafayette's health during the
fast-paced schedule.(4) He seems particularly perplexed and amused in his
recounting of the events at Albany.
People arriving at Albany by way of steamboat disembarked at a landing
at the foot of what is now Madison Avenue, three blocks from the Stafford House.
Upon Lafayette's arrival there by ferry from Greenbush (now the City of Rensselaer) he was brought by carriage to the Capitol along a route flanked by flaming pyramidal bonfires. When he was presented to the public on the balcony of the Capitol, an eagle on cue came
down and placed a "crown of laurels and evergreens" on his head. Gov. Yates accompanied Lafayette for much of his tour of the area. Before
stepping onto a steamboat for New York at midnight, he "visited Gov. Yates and [former Gov.] Dewitt Clinton." Given the hour, it's most likely he met Yates at his house rather than at the Capitol.
A more detailed account of a visit to the Stafford House in its Executive
trappings is given by Thurlow Weed, a newspaper editor first in Albany and
then New York City and a man who was as active as Martin Van Buren in
finagling to get support for his political ideas. Yates invited Weed and the
Governor's personal advisors to dinner at the house in the spring of 1824
to, according to Weed, determine the feelings of other politicians and
people across the state about a particular political matter.(5)
Knowing Weed had recently traveled across the state, Yates asked him to
recount what he heard. The following is taken from Weed's autobiography:
...prominent and influential men in different parts
of the State, from their knowledge of the Governor's character,
seemed confident that he would call an extra session [of the
legislature to vote on whether or not to give the populace the
power to elect presidential electors]...I then named a gentleman
who heard Attorney General Talcott assure some people in the
Mansion House bar-room that there would be no
proclamation convening the legislature. On being asked why he
spoke so confidently, he replied that the power to convene the
legislature was a high perogative, the exercise of which
required great courage. "Very well" said his questioner, "the
governor is a man of courage." "Possibly," responded the
attorney general, "but when he comes to face the question, the
writing of a proclamation will require decision and nerve."
Governor Yates sprang to his feet and in a loud tone and
excited manner, exclaimed [Weed mockingly using a Dutch
accent], "Talcott said dat it will require decision and nerve to
write a proclamation, did he?...well, I'll show him dat I possess
decision and nerve enough to do right! John, come with me in
the office." After the governor had retired to the library, his
brother...remarked that all was right, that when the governor
was stimulated to the point he had now reached, nothing could
change his determination. I soon took leave in a frame of
mind well calculated to assist digestion.
The office and library may have been one and the same, and located in
the front room of the second floor. Further examination of the characters and circumstances may explain why Weed was so
carefully consulted since his politics were Anti-Federalist. Attorney-General
Samuel Talcott suffered from alcoholism so badly that his political career
would soon end. His affliction must have been known to insiders like
Yates, who nevertheless took Talcotts's remarks, made in one of Albany's
popular taverns, rather seriously.
The extra session of the legislature referred to was to act on a bill
previously ignored by the legislature. The Regency wanted the power to
appoint Presidential Electors, and the bill would have given that right to the
voters. The bill was not passed, which apparently was anticipated by the Anti-Federalists.
The rage of the public came down upon
the Federalist Regency. The legislators conveniently deferred the barrage to Gov.
DeWitt Clinton had his revenge. Yates was discarded by his party as an
incumbent candidate in 1824, an act thinly veiled with the suggestion that
Yates might be on the national docket for Vice President. Although there
was a close race with the Regency candidate, Clinton was re-elected
Joseph Yates became the president of the New York State Electoral
College in 1825 and continued to practice law until his death in 1837. His
lackluster governorship, worsened by misguided criticism, left such a bad
taste in the mouths of Albanians that he is virtually passed over in local
histories. At least in Schenectady and at the Stafford House, Yates has a
legacy of his own.
1. John Stillwell Jenkins, Lives of the Governors of New York State (Auburn, NY:1852), pp. 319-345.
2. Van Buren papers, abstracted in research found in the Schenectady County Historical Society.
3. A bed, settee and mirror owned by Yates are in the Winterthur Museum.
4. Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, vol. 1 (Philadelphia:1829), pp. 114-122.
5. Thurlow Weed (Harriet Weed, ed.) Autobiography of Thurlow Weed, (Boston:1883), pp. 114-116