Nelson W. Aldrich

Nelson W. Aldrich
Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich
United States Senator
from Rhode Island
In office
1881 – 1911
Preceded by Ambrose Burnside
Succeeded by Henry F. Lippitt
Personal details
Born November 6, 1841(1841-11-06)
Foster, Rhode Island
Died April 16, 1915(1915-04-16) (aged 73)
New York, New York
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Abigail "Abby" Pearce Truman Chapman
Alma mater East Greenwich Academy
Profession Businessman

Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (November 6, 1841 – April 16, 1915) was a prominent American politician and a leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, where he served from 1881 to 1911.

Because of his impact on national politics and central position on the pivotal Senate Finance Committee, he was referred to by the press and public alike as the "General Manager of the Nation", dominating all tariff and monetary policies in the first decade of the 20th century. In a career that spanned three decades, Aldrich helped to create an extensive system of tariffs that protected American factories and farms from foreign competition, while driving the price of consumer goods artificially high—which hurt many workers and farmers. He was a party to the re-structuring of the American financial system through the institution of the federal income tax amendment, which he originally opposed, and the Federal Reserve System. He stated that he believed these reforms would lead to greater efficiency. Aldrich became wealthy with investments in street railroads, sugar, rubber and banking. His son Richard Steere Aldrich became a U.S. Representative, and his daughter, Abby, married John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the only son of John D. Rockefeller. Her son and his grandson Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, served as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford.


Family background

Portrait of Senator Aldrich

Aldrich was born into a family descended from John Winthrop, William Wickenden, and Roger Williams.[1][2] His branch passed through generations of declining circumstances. His mother was Abby Burgess and his father was Anan E. Aldrich, an industrial mill hand. The first of the American Aldrich ancestors was the immigrant George Aldrich, who settled in Mendon, Massachusetts in the 17th century. Today, the Aldrich Family Association, and the family cemetery, is located in the neighboring community of Uxbridge, Massachusetts on the Rhode Island border. It was in Rhode Island that Nelson Aldrich grew up and prospered. He attended the East Greenwich Academy. The Aldrich family has grown to become a political dynasty on the American landscape, with senators, a vice president, and various political figures in a number of states.

Political career

Aldrich's home in Providence, a National Historic Landmark

Aldrich's first job was clerking for the largest wholesale grocer in the state, where he worked his way up to become a partner in the firm. On October 9, 1866 he married Abigail "Abby" Pearce Truman Chapman, a wealthy woman with impressive antecedents. By 1877, Nelson had a major effect on state politics, even before his election to the United States Congress.[3] He served as the president of the Providence city council and Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

In 1878 the Republican bosses of Rhode Island endorsed him for the US House of Representatives; in 1881 he was elected to the Senate. He served in the Senate from 1881 to 1911 as an influential Republican, becoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

In 1906 Aldrich sold his interest in the Rhode Island street railway system to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, whose president was J. P. Morgan's loyal ally, Charles Sanger Mellen. Also in 1906 Aldrich and other American financiers invested heavily in mines and rubber in the Belgian Congo. They supported Belgium's King Leopold II, who had imposed slave labor conditions in the colony.[4]

In 1907, J.P. Morgan published rumors that the Knickerbocker Trust Company was insolvent. Some later historians believe this was a deliberate act of market manipulation which precipitated the Panic of 1907, and consolidated the preeminence of the banks controlled by Morgan.[5] The panic itself led to the passage of the Aldrich–Vreeland Act in 1908, which established the National Monetary Commission, sponsored and headed by Aldrich. After issuing a series of 30 reports, this commission drew up the Aldrich Plan, forming the basis for the Federal Reserve system.

As co-author of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, Aldrich removed restrictive import duties on fine art, which enabled Americans to bring in very expensive European artworks that became the foundation of many leading museums.

In 1909, Aldrich introduced a constitutional amendment to establish an income tax, although he had declared a similar measure "communistic" a decade earlier.

Taft tries to get progressive ideas into Aldrich

He also served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. During his Senate tenure he chaired the committees on Finance, Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, Rules, and the Select Committee on Corporations Organized in the District of Columbia.

A deep believer in the progressive themes of efficiency and scientific expertise, Aldrich led a team of experts to study the European national banks. After his trip, he came to believe that Britain, Germany and France had a much superior central banking system.[6] He worked with several key bankers and economists, including Paul Warburg, Abram Andrew and Henry Davison, to design a plan for an American central bank in 1911. In 1913 Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Reserve Act, which was patterned after Aldrich's vision.

Because of his control of the Senate (and his daughter Abby Greene Aldrich's marriage to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and son Winthrop Aldrich's later chairmanship of the Chase National Bank), Aldrich, who represented the smallest state in the Union, was regarded as one of the most powerful politicians of his time[citation needed]. His grandson and namesake Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was Governor of New York, unsuccessfully attempted the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, and was Vice President of the United States under President Gerald Ford.

Aldrich was very active in the Freemasons and was the Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island. He died on April 16, 1915, in New York, New York, and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. The Nelson W. Aldrich House on 110 Benevolent Street in Providence is open as a museum run by the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Congressional committee assignments

Committee Congresses Notes
House District of Columbia 46
Senate District of Columbia 47-48
Education and Labor 47-48
Finance 47-61 Chairman (55-61)
Steel Producing Capacity of the United States (Select) 48-49
Transportation Routes to the Seaboard 48-55 Chairman (48-49)
Pensions 49
Examine the Several Branches of the Civil Service 50-51
Rules 50-61 Chairman (50-52; 54; 55)
Corporations Organized in the District of Columbia 53-60 Chairman of the Select Committee, (53)
Revolutionary Claims 53-54
Interstate Commerce 54-61
Cuban Relations 56-60
Industrial Expositions 59-60
Public Expenditures 61

Further reading


  1. ^ William G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island, a History, (W.W. Norton & Co. 1986), 149 [1]
  2. ^ James Pierce Root, Steere Genealogy: A Record of the Descendants of John Steere, who Settled in Providence, Rhode Island, about the year 1660, (Providence: Riverside Press, 1890).
  3. ^ Bernice Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family, 1993, p. 17
  4. ^ Jerome L. Sternstein, "King Leopold II, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and the Strange Beginnings of American Economic Penetration of the Congo," African Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1969), pp. 189-204
  5. ^ Allen, Frederick (April 25, 1949). "Morgan the Great". Life Magazine 26 (17): 126. 
  6. ^ Europe and Central Banks, New York Times, January 9, 1910, Annual Financial Review, pg 8.

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Benjamin T. Eames
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Rhode Island's 1st district
March 4, 1879 – October 4, 1881
Succeeded by
Henry J. Spooner
United States Senate
Preceded by
Ambrose Burnside
United States Senator (Class 1) from Rhode Island
October 5, 1881 – March 4, 1911
Served alongside: Henry B. Anthony, William P. Sheffield, Jonathan Chace, Nathan F. Dixon, George Peabody Wetmore
Succeeded by
Henry F. Lippitt
Legal offices
Preceded by
Justin Morrill
Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance
1899 – 1911
Succeeded by
Boies Penrose

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