George Clymer was frequently described by his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention of 1781 as a diffident man who could work effectively behind the scenes. He worked effectively for the American revolutionary cause, as he was one of only eight Americans to have signed both the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787. For Indiana Countians, Clymer’s political career stirs special interest because he is a fellow Pennsylvanian and he donated the land upon which our county seat was built.
Clymer was one of the wealthiest men who signed the Constitution. At his death, his family was reputed to own as much as two million acres of Pennsylvania land. These vast holdings caused many of his contemporaries to label him as a land speculator rather than a statesman. His involvement in the formation of Indiana County, after it was carved out of Westmoreland County in 1803, demonstrates both his savvy for land speculation and his interest in the development of Pennsylvania.
Clymer owned large tracts of land in Indiana County along Twolick Creek near present day Clymer Borough. In order to make this land more valuable, Clymer and his wife, the former Elizabeth Meredith, generously donated 250 acres to the newly appointed Indiana County Commissioners to sell in lots for Indiana Borough. The proceeds therefrom were used to erect a courthouse, jail and other public buildings that once stood at the corner of Philadelphia and North Sixth Streets. Although there is no record of Clymer ever visiting Indiana County, he did travel through western Pennsylvania on his way to Fort Pitt during the Revolution, and he rode as far as Bedford during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Clymer’s dedication to the growth of Pennsylvania and the new county can be attributed to his family history. His ancestors on both sides of his family had arrived in Philadelphia from England by 1700, and by the Revolution the family had become economically prosperous. Clymer’s early years in Philadelphia, however, were marked by tragedy. His mother died one year after his birth, and his father died by his seventh birthday. Thereafter, his mother’s sister and her wealthy husband, William Coleman, formally adopted him.
Clymer enjoyed many luxuries while living in the Coleman household. He was educated formally in his uncle’s extensive library, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in law and literature. During these years he also clerked at his uncle’s business. The early foundation prepared him to become a widely respected financial advisor to the federal government in his later years. It was not, however, until his marriage in 1766 that he became active in politics.
Clymer’s father-in-law, in addition to introducing him to young George Washington from Virginia with whom Clymer was destined to develop a lifelong friendship, made him a partner in the family’s enormously profitable coffee and tea import business. When, therefore, the British began imposing harsh taxes on the import of tea, Clymer and other colonists similarly employed rebelled against the Crown. Clymer served as Chairman of the Philadelphia Tea Committee, successfully persuading merchants all over Philadelphia to refuse to import tea with the British tax stamp on it.
In 1776 Clymer became a Captain in General Cadwalader’s “silk stocking” regiment and on July 7, 1775, he became one of the Continental Congress’ first treasurers. He immediately exchanged all his English specie for Continental Currency. This act so enraged the British that after the Battle of Brandywine, British troops made a special detour to burn Clymer’s estate in Chester County.
After the Revolution, Clymer was elected to the Confederation Congress, but by 1786 he advocated that a new body must convene to correct the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In his view unless Congress were given jurisdiction over commerce and finance, the government would collapse. It was in this spirit that he joined the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia during the sweltering summer of 1787.
After the first meeting, the 55 delegates (the eldest was Ben Franklin at age 80) swore themselves to secrecy, sealed the windows in Independence Hall and began to draft a new constitution. Most details and compromises were handled in the various committees. Here Clymer excelled. Well respected for his business acumen, he sat on the financial affairs committees, lobbying for a strong national government. His influence can be found in the famous commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress sweeping power over the nation’s commerce.
After the convention, Clymer, as a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, spearheaded the movement to ratify the Constitution in the Pennsylvania Congress. Even though most members opposed the ratification, Clymer succeeded in his goal by using clever maneuvers. When the vote came up, Clymer personally saw to it that not enough of the opposition could be present to out vote him.
When the new Constitution had been ratified by all the states, Clymer was elected in November 1788 to serve in the first session of the United States House of Representatives. He served in the House until 1791 when he was appointed Supervisor of Internal Revenue for Pennsylvania. He resigned, however, shortly before the culmination of the Whiskey Rebellion and went on to serve under his long time associate, President George Washington, as collector of excise taxes. Later, Washington asked him to be one of the three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee Indians in Georgia. This assignment was to be his last public act. Thereafter, he retired and served as the first president of the First Bank of Philadelphia. He also became the first president of the Philadelphia Academy of Arts. He died in January 1813, and was buried in Friends Meeting burial grounds, Trenton, New Jersey.
Although historians may rank Clymer’s achievements at a more modest level than those of Jefferson, Washington or Madison, he deserves, nevertheless, to be considered among the pre-eminent political leaders of the revolutionary era. His prodigious record of public services evidences his dedication to the ongoing success of the American republic.