Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich

views updated May 29 2018

Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich

United States senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (1841-1915) was the ablest of a group of Republican conservatives who fought a rearguard action against progressivism during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Adescendant of Roger Williams, Nelson Aldrich was born in Foster, R.I., on Nov. 6, 1841, and educated in the common schools of the area. His marriage to Abby Chapman in 1865 brought him a measure of wealth and gave him entry to society, but he was essentially a self-made man. After service in the Civil War, he rose to partnership in a wholesale grocery business. He invested shrewdly and ultimately became one of Rhode Island's foremost financiers.

A resourceful leader, Aldrich was a man of extraordinary charm, lucidity, and willpower. He served two terms in the Rhode Island Legislature and one in Congress before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1881. There for 30 years he represented the corporate and financial world's point of view with wit, irony, and intelligence. He shared power with a half dozen other conservatives through the McKinley and first Roosevelt administrations but stood virtually alone as the spokesman of the Old Guard thereafter. More than any other senator, he was able to thwart, retard, or modify Roosevelt's progressive recommendations between 1905 and 1909.

Aldrich's conservatism reflected the arrogance of the self-made man and an almost unqualified belief that what was good for big business was good for the nation. He supported the gold standard and the protective tariff and generally opposed the regulation of business. He was also unsympathetic to social-justice measures and democratic procedural reforms. Yet he was realistic enough to accept the inevitability of change, and he endeavored to shape change along lines congenial to his own views.

In 1906 Aldrich succeeded in having the Hepburn rate bill amended to the railroads' partial satisfaction. The next year he sponsored the Aldrich-Vreeland emergency banking bill. As head of the National Monetary Commission created by that measure, he declared, "I am going to have a central bank in this country." In 1911 his proposals, the so-called Aldrich Plan, were unveiled with strong banking and civic support. Many of these recommendations were incorporated in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Significantly, however, Aldrich opposed two of the act's key provisions: public control of the central board and the issuance of government notes.

For all his indomitable qualities, Aldrich was a gracious, pleasure-loving man. A connoisseur and collector of paintings, he maintained a luxurious estate and consorted almost exclusively with the social and economic elite. His daughter Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Aldrich died on April 16, 1915.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Aldrich. Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, Nelson W. Aldrich: A Leader in American Politics (1930), is a brilliant character study which suffers from its uncritical tone. Background studies of the period include Mathew Josephson, The President Makers: The Culture ofPolitics and Leadership in an Age of Enlightenment, 1896-1919 (1940) and The Politicos: 1865-1896 (1938); George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900-1912 (1958); and David J. Rothman, Politics and Power: The United States Senate, 1869-1901 (1966). □