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A Legacy of Leadership

The Tradition Begins

New York City, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, has led the nation in innovation, controversy, and far-reaching action; and Columbia's alumni have from the earliest days acted to fulfill the University's central mission of developing educated leaders with inquiring minds, personal courage, and concern for community.

Alexander Hamilton possessed those qualities in abundance. Often thought of as Columbia's earliest alumnus, Hamilton in fact began his studies at King's College ten years after John Jay's graduation in 1764. Hamilton's college career was interrupted by the Revolution, which he joined during the 1776 military campaign in and around the city. He later represented New York in Congress, signed the Constitution on behalf of the people of New York State, and, after serving as Secretary of the Treasury, resumed his law practice in the city. He soon emerged as one of three lawyers most in demand in post-Revolutionary New York, along with fellow alumnus Jay and courtroom rival Aaron Burr.

King's College alumnus Benjamin Moore

John Jay is remembered primarily for his accomplishments on the national stage as the first U.S. secretary of state and the first chief justice of the United States. But he was very much a New Yorker, a conservative aristocrat born in the city, and a successful lawyer. In addition to helping write New York State's first constitution, Jay was the first chief justice of what is now the State Court of Appeals and later became governor of New York.

Unlike Hamilton and Jay, Benjamin Moore (1768, M.A. 1771, King's College), who at age 17 served as valedictorian of his class, was a Loyalist. He was acting president of King's College shortly before it was shut down by the American Revolution. In 1801, he returned as the fifth president of the institution, which had since been renamed Columbia. That same year he became the Episcopal bishop of New York.

King's College alumnus Robert Livingston

Columbians were to play a pivotal role in establishing New York as a great international port. The seeds for this venture were planted by Benjamin Moore's Bronx-born classmate, Gouverneur Morris (1768, M.A. 1771, King's College), who chaired a commission that drew up plans for a canal to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Morris's lifetime of public service also included working with John Jay and Robert Livingston (1765, M.A. 1768, King's College) in drafting the New York State Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, followed by service as senator from New York. Livingston himself played a key role in the growth of New York's port through his introduction, with partner Robert Fulton, of steam-driven ferry service between communities separated by the rivers and the harbor.

Morris's ambitious scheme for a canal found its champion in the first graduate of the reconstituted Columbia College: DeWitt Clinton (1786C), senator from New York and then New York's mayor for ten years—a role in which he literally helped to shape the city by appointing the planning commission that plotted the physical development of the growing metropolis, imposing the basic grid of streets and avenues still with us today. But it was after leaving office as mayor that Clinton, who had served on the canal commission headed by Gouverneur Morris, became president of a second, successful commission that pushed for construction of the Erie Canal. He then was elected as the governor who would oversee the actual building of it.

The creation of a water route connecting New York and the world beyond with inland America superbly positioned the city to lead the industrial revolution. The economy boomed and New York City's population increased dramatically. Fulton's and Livingston's launching of the steamboat Clermont, as well as the work of naval engineer John Stevens (1768, King's College), led to New York's becoming the world's first modern port, attracting great transoceanic shipping companies. The Irish shipowner William R. Grace came to New York in 1866, was elected mayor in 1880, and insisted that his eldest son, Joseph Grace 1894C (later a Columbia Trustee), pursue a Columbia education.

The Columbia connection has continued to our own time, as Alan Sagner '91GS served for eight years as chairman of the New York–New Jersey Port Authority.

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