John Isaac De Graff (October 2, 1783 – July 26, 1848) was a U.S. Representative from New York. Born in Schenectady, De Graff attended the common schools and Union College and engaged in mercantile pursuits and the practice of law in that city.
He served in the War of 1812 and was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat to the Twentieth Congress (March 4, 1827 – March 3, 1829).
He served as mayor of Schenectady 1832 through 1834 and again in 1836, 1842, and 1845. De Graff was again elected as a Democrat to the Twenty-fifth Congress (March 4, 1837 – March 3, 1839). He was interested in the building of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad. He engaged in banking until his death in Schenectady on July 26, 1848 and is interred in the city’s Vale Cemetery.
In early 1814 a British fleet appeared on Lake Champlain and we had no warships to defend our country. Our government sent a naval architect to Otter Creek to begin construction of the USS Saratoga (212 crew and 28 cannon) and USS Ticonderoga (112 crew and 17 cannon).
But in August the British invaded Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol. Alas, the United States had neither capital nor credit to complete and equip our new fleet. To the rescue came John Isaac DeGraff, who put up $100,000 in bonds to finance the job. When the bonds were redeemed John lost $30,000.
On September 11, 1814 Commodore Thomas Macdonough and the US Navy defeated the British fleet at Plattsburgh ending the invasion of the United States. Commodore Macdonough personally wrote a letter of thanks to DeGraff: “The aid I obtained through your influence and responsibility enabled me to get the fleet ready. When I go to Washington I shall not fail to report your kindness to the Secretary [of the Navy].”
If the British fleet had been victorious on Lake Champlain, their army might have been able to march to Albany, as General Burgoyne had planned before he was stopped on Bemis Heights in 1777. There were 10,000 British regulars at Plattsburgh, facing only 2,400 Americans, the majority of whom were militia.
So who was this John Isaac DeGraff? And what motivated him to help his country, and just as important, help his City of Schenectady? A clue from one obituary reads “Kind, liberal and generous to a fault, knowing no guile, and always dealing most leniently with all with whom he had business transactions, he won many friends, and died without an enemy.”
John Isaac received patriotism from his father, Isaac DeGraff, a major during the American Revolution who took his oath of office from Lafayette. Isaac, the son of Daniel and Gazena Swits De Graff, was born in Schenectady on November 16, 1757. He was a man of prominence and a devoted patriot. After the close of the Revolutionary War Father Isaac and bachelor son John Isaac were very close. Both lawyers, they were next door neighbors on Lower State Street in Schenectady.
Otherwise, the details of John’s early life are sketchy. We know that he attended the Schenectady Academy sponsored by the Dutch Reformed Church. He is listed as a Phi Beta Kappa member of the Class of 1811 of Union College, which would seemingly have made him almost 28 years old at graduation. But his name also appears on a payroll roster of about 200 soldiers in 1805 when he was 22 years old.
Apparently he served with the army before entering Union and possibly even after he graduated a year before the start of the War of 1812. His profession is listed as merchant with a warehouse on Washington Avenue, not far from the wharf on the Binnekill. He shipped his goods westward on the Mohawk River. The Western Inland Navigation Company, founded by Phillip Schuyler, built locks and canals at Little Falls and Wood Creek to facilitate navigation into the Great Lakes.
Schenectady before the Erie Canal was already a bustling port. There were as many as 100 Durham boats based here, some capable of carrying 20 tons of cargo. And there were over 300 wagoners employed in hauling goods over a stone-paved roadbed on the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike.
In addition to Schenectady, John had offices in both Paris and London, and he accumulated wealth and property at an early age. Has also practiced law and served on the boards of several local banks. He was elected Mayor of Schenectady six times between 1832 and 1845, twice by unanimously vote of the City Council, and then became the first mayor elected by popular vote of the citizenry in 1834.
John Isaac DeGraff was the first president of the Hudson and Mohawk Railroad when it was chartered in 1826. In 1831, along with Erastus Corning and Thurlow Weed, he rode on the first train from Albany to Schenectady, a train hauled by the engine named Dewitt Clinton. While still president of the railroad, he also purchased the right of way for the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad.
However, when his railroad wanted to expand further into Schenectady while he was Mayor in 1832, he advised the City Council as to the disadvantages of that action and asked the Council to take measures to keep the public streets free of unnecessary obstructions and to make sure that cross streets are made safe for the public.
His greatest public service as Mayor came during the Cholera epidemic of 1832. Under his leadership, together with that of the medical profession, canal boats were inspected and quarantined, physicians hired to treat the poor, streets cleaned, and other public heath measure taken, and a special cholera hospital was set up beyond the city limits. His initiative undoubtedly contributed to the City’s lower cholera mortality rate relative to Albany,
Additionally, with Professor Chester Averill of Union College, John co-authored a monograph regarding the disinfectant powers of chlorine, with an explanation of the mode it which it operates. This chemical was effective against the cholera bacterium, but its use did not become widespread until after the epidemic had passed.
Six years earlier, in 1826, John De Graff, a Jacksonian Democrat, was elected to the House of Representatives without opposition, and was elected to a second two-year term ten years later, by which time congressional district boundaries had changed to include Saratoga County.
John, running against the incumbent Whig congressman who had been representing Saratoga, was accused of being a war profiteer who was too close to the Regency — the New York State Democratic political machine — but he won handily. During both terms he was appointed to the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.
In 1827 he sponsored a bill reimbursing American ship owners whose vessels were intentionally sunk by the Navy to blockade the port of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The personal financial losses John suffered during the War made him a natural ally of the ship owners.
The competition and rivalry between Albany and Schenectady goes back to the fur trade, when our geographic ancestors capitalized on the opportunity to purchase beaver pelts as they were transported east. This rivalry was also evident during the Erie Canal period when Mayor-Congressman John Isaac DeGraff was Schenectady’s champion.
In 1836 while he was Mayor of Schenectady, the City of Albany tried to have the route of the Erie Canal changed so it would bypass Schenectady. John fought this with vigor, pointing out that this would increase land values in Albany County, decrease them in Schenectady, but do nothing at all to improve traffic on the Canal.
He resigned his office in 1837 in order to begin his second term in congress and introduced legislation intended to keep the canal in Schenectady. This was a bit strange because the Erie Canal was operated by the State of New York, not the Federal Government. But, bill or no bill, State officials addressed his concern, the route of the canal was not changed, and the Erie Canal continued to be the principal engine driving the Schenectady economy.
John I. De Graff’s personal integrity and financial acumen were so widely respected that President Martin Van Buren invited him to join his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. John declined due to pressure from private business. Although he never married and raised no children, he strongly supported public education. He served on the Board of the Schenectady Lyceum, a secondary school. Under his leadership as mayor, the City Council appropriated land for an African School on Jay Street.
John was very popular in Schenectady. He took a great interest in its inhabitants. He placed a book in his mayor’s office on State Street, and any citizen could write a complaint that would be called to his attention. Although he did not need the income, John rented out his pastures to his neighbors so that they could graze their cows.
John Isaac DeGraff died on July 26, 1848 after a seven-week illness characterized as a “disorganization of the stomach.” At the time of his death he was the fourth president of the Mohawk Bank. He was generous in his will, granting bequests to numerous friends, nieces and nephews, and even his tenants.
The Schenectady Reflector of July 28, 1848 paid him this tribute: “In public, as well as in private life, he was esteemed for his kindness and generosity of character and the liberality of his views and opinions, and he was forgiving and charitable to a fault… All the latter years of his life have been devoted to the assistance of others. The death of no man in our city could create a greater void, or one more difficult to fill. He had the respect and esteem of all.”
Illustrations, from above: portrait of John Isaac DeGraff (1783-1848) 1846 by Cornelius Van Patten; grayscale excerpt from a color painting of the De Graff properties on Lower State Street in Schenectady by Cornelius Van Patten; The DeWitt Clinton steam locomotive.
Jim Strosberg wrote this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 56. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org.