|Joseph Christoper Yates, oil on canvas by Ezra Ames, c. 1825, courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society|
Joseph Christopher Yates was distinguished for “his plain and practical common sense, for his uprightness and impartiality, and for the courtesy and urbanity which gained him the respect and esteem of the public.” This assessment of Yates was based on his roles as a lawyer, statesman, politician, and founding trustee of Union College.
Born on November 7, 1768 in Schenectady, NY to Colonel Christopher P. Yates and Jannetje Bradt Yates, he was the eldest son of seven children. When his father died in 1785 the executors of his estate were his brother, a farmer, and his widow Jannetje. On the subject of the Yates sons’ future, this – possibly apocryphal – anecdote survives: “Dey shall work,” said the farmer, “I am the axaceter.” “Dey shall be eddicated,” replied the widow, “I am the axectrix.” Fortunately for Union College, the City of Schenectady, and the State of New York, the widow prevailed.
Yates studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1792. He became the first Mayor of Schenectady in 1798, at the age of thirty. From 1805 to 1807 Yates served a term as a New York State Senator during his tenure as Mayor of Schenectady. In 1808 he became a judge of the New York State Supreme Court, where he served for fifteen years. During this time, as a member of the Council of Revision, he cast a decisive vote in favor of the construction of the Erie Canal. His public service also included membership on the Board of Regents from 1812 to 1833.
Yates was New York’s fourth Governor, and the only New York State Governor to come from Schenectady. He served for a single term, from 1823-1824: in an unusual twist, he succeeded Dewitt Clinton, and was then succeeded by Clinton. As Governor, Yates championed the idea of taking the power of electing a U.S. President out of the hands of the New York State legislature and giving it to the people. He proposed that the legislature pass a law allowing eligible voters to select electors who would in turn cast ballots for President of the United States. In support of his position he argued that “the people alone are the true and legitimate source of all power.” The home he inhabited in Schenectady while the Governor of New York still exists at 17 Front Street in the city's historic Stockade District. Governor Yates hosted the Revolutionary War hero General LaFayette at this home during the opening celebrations for the Erie Canal in 1825.
Yates was the youngest member of the original Board of Trustees of Union, serving from 1795 until his death in 1837. Yates and his fellow board members persevered in their effort to found a college in Schenectady, in the face of challenges from the nearby community of Albany.
The circumstances of his education had shown him the need of a seminary in upstate New York and he became active, even as a young man, in the movement that resulted in the founding of Union College. ...The prosperity of Union College was to him a matter of deep interest, and it may well be said the history of Union College is blended with that of Joseph Yates.
Yates also served on a committee with Dirck Romeyn and others, to determine what books and instruments would form Union’s “first purchase” – the group of instructional materials deemed necessary to the educational mission of the new institution. After his political career ended in 1834, he practiced law from an office attached to his house at 17 Front Street, and helped found the Schenectady Savings Bank, an institution for which he served as President until his death in 1837.