Seth Low

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Seth Low
SethLow.jpg
92nd[1] Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1902 – December 31, 1903
Preceded by Robert Anderson Van Wyck
Succeeded by George Brinton McClellan, Jr.
Personal details
Born (1850-01-18)January 18, 1850
Brooklyn, New York
Died 17 September 1916(1916-09-17) (aged 66)
Bedford Hills, New York
Nationality American
Political party Republican

Seth Low (January 18, 1850 – September 17, 1916), born in Brooklyn, New York, was an American educator and political figure who served as mayor of Brooklyn, as President of Columbia University, as diplomatic representative of the United States, and as 92nd Mayor of New York City. He was a leading municipal reformer fighting for efficiency during the Progressive Era.

Early life[edit]

Seth Low was the son of Ellen (Dow) and Abiel Abbot Low.[2] Low's father was a leading China trader, and his father's sister, Harriet Low, was one of the first young American women to live in China.[3] Low attended Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn and Columbia College. After graduating from Columbia in 1870, Low made a short trip abroad, and then entered the tea and silk house of A. A. Low & Brothers, which had been founded by his father in New York. In 1875, he was admitted a member of the firm, from which, upon its liquidation in 1888, he withdrew with a large fortune.[4] On December 9, 1880 he married Anne Wroe Scollay Curtis of Boston, daughter of Justice Benjamin R. Curtis of the United States Supreme Court. They had no biological children, but adopted two nieces and a nephew.[2]

Mayor of Brooklyn[edit]

Low became mayor of Brooklyn, in 1881, following in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, who was Brooklyn's mayor earlier in the century. Low grew the office, and provided a nonpartisan, honest, and efficient administration. He reformed the franchise system, put city employees under civil service, built new schools, opened a school to train teachers. He restructured Brooklyn's tax system and reduced the city's debt. He achieved a degree of home rule by convincing the legislature in Albany to give him veto power over laws affecting Brooklyn. Most voters were "wet", and he told the police to ignore the strict sabbath laws so that orderly saloons could stay open on Sunday.[5]

Low served two terms until 1885, and seemed to have been a popular leader, but his support of Grover Cleveland in 1884 caused a rift with his fellow Republicans and cost him a third term. During his tenure as mayor, he served as a member of the board of the New York Bridge Company, the company that built the Brooklyn Bridge, and led an unsuccessful effort to remove Washington Roebling as the chief engineer on that project.[6]

President of Columbia University[edit]

Following his tenure as mayor of Brooklyn, Low assumed the presidency of Columbia College, serving between 1890 and 1901. Not an educator in the specific meaning of the word, he succeeded by his administrative skill in transforming the institution.[4] He led the move of the institution from Midtown Manhattan to Morningside Heights, and secured trustee approval to change its name to "Columbia University". The new campus matched Low's vision of a civic university fully integrated into the city; the original design, subsequently reconceived, left it open to the street and surrounding neighborhoods.

To forge a university, Low vitally united the various schools into one organization whose direction was moved from the separate faculties to a university council. Further reforms effected by him include the reorganization of the Law School, the addition of a faculty of pure science, the association with the university of the Teachers College, and the extension of the department of political and social study.[4] In 1895, he gave one million dollars of his inheritance from his father for Low Memorial Library to be built at the new Columbia University campus. It was dedicated to his father, and opened in 1897.

International Peace Conference[edit]

Seth Low (seated at right) with other members of the American delegation to the International Peace Conference, 1899

On July 4, 1899 he was one of the American delegates to attend the International Peace Conference at The Hague. Others in the delegation were Andrew D. White, then the United States Ambassador to the German Empire; Stanford Newel of Minnesota, then the United States Minister to the Netherlands; Captain Alfred Mahan, of the United States Navy; Captain William Crozier, of the United States Army; and Frederick Holls of New York.

At the conference, Low made the concluding speech, printed two months later in The New York Times, saying:

"On this day, so full for Americans of thoughts connected with their National Independence, we may not forget that Americans have yet other grounds for gratitude to the people of the Netherlands. We cannot forget that our flag received its first foreign salute from a Dutch officer, nor that the Province of Friesland gave to our independence its first formal recognition. By way of Leyden and Delft-Haven and Plymouth Rock, and again by way of New Amsterdam, the free public school reached American shores.
"The United States of America have taken their name from the United States of the Netherlands. We have learned from you only that 'in union there is strength'; that is an old lesson, but also, in large measure, how to make 'One out of many'. From you we have learned what we, at least, value, to separate Church and State; and from you we gather inspiration at all times in our devotion to learning, to religious liberty, and to individual and National freedom. These are some of the things for which we believe the American people owe no little gratitude to the Dutch; and these are the things for which today, speaking in the name of the American people, we venture to express their heartfelt thanks."

Mayor of New York City[edit]

Low's first campaign for mayor of consolidated New York in 1897 was unsuccessful, partially because of a division among anti-Tammany Hall candidates and parties. However, four years later, he managed to attain office.[7]

During his 1901 campaign, he had the support of humorist Mark Twain. He and Twain made a joint appearance that drew a crowd of more than 2,000.

In 1902, Low resigned as president of the university to become the second mayor of the newly consolidated City of New York. He stands out as the first mayor of Greater New York to be elected on a fusion ticket, with the support of both the Citizens Union and Republican parties. Some of his notable achievements include the introduction of a civil service system — based upon merit — for hiring municipal employees, reducing widespread graft within the police department, improving the system of education within the city, and lowering taxes. Despite these seemingly impressive achievements he only served for two years, and was defeated in 1903 by Democrat George B. McClellan, Jr..

Later life[edit]

He was chairman of the Tuskegee Institute the black school headed by Booker T. Washington from 1907 until 1916. From 1907, he was also president of the business-labor alliance the National Civic Federation. Even though he believed in collective bargaining rights, which had customarily been denied to labor unions by those in authority, he did not favor strikes, but rather embraced arbitration as a suitable labor-management negotiation tactic. He was a founder and the first president of the Bureau of Charities of Brooklyn, and was elected vice-president of the New York Academy of Sciences and president of the Archaeological Institute of America.[4]

Low became interested in the food supply problem, that is its contribution to the constantly increasing cost of living. He became convinced that this difficulty could best be solved by democratic cooperation among farmers and consumers. He was president of the Bedford Farmers' Cooperative Association. He was also one of the founders of the Cooperative Wholesale Corporation of New York City, an organization which sought to bring about a business federation of all the consumers' cooperative store societies in the eastern United States, but not being in sympathy with the radical tendency of this phase of the cooperative movement, he finally resigned and devoted himself entirely to the agricultural phase of cooperation. Low was also a trustee of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C.[2]

On September 17, 1916, Low died in his home in Bedford Hills, New York. Even his funeral demonstrated the ability of Low to reach political consensus, with honorary pallbearers that included both financier and philanthropist John Pierpont Morgan, Jr. and labor activist and AFL founder Samuel Gompers. [8] He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ "The Green Book: Mayors of the City of New York" on the official NYC website]
  2. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Homans, James E., ed. (1918). "Low, Seth". The Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: The Press Association Compilers, Inc. 
  3. ^ Puga, Rogério Miguel (June 2008). "Interpreting Macau through the Journals of Harriett Low and Rebecca Chase Kinsman". Sino-Western Cultural Research (中西文化研究) (Macau Polytechnic Institute) 1: 157–159. 
  4. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg "Low, Seth". New International Encyclopedia. 1905. 
  5. ^ Cerillo (2000)
  6. ^ McCullough, David (1972). The Great Bridge. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-21213-3. 
  7. ^ "Seth Low's Mayoralty". New York Times. 1992-03-09. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  8. ^ NYC 100 – NYC Mayors - The First 100 Years, www.nyc.gov
Further reading
  • Cerillo, Augustus. "Low, Seth" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000; Access Date: Sept. 15 2013
  • Fredman, L. E. "Seth Low: Theorist of Municipal Reform," Journal of American Studies 1972 6(1): 19-39
  • Kurland, Gerald. Seth Low: The Reformer in an Urban and Industrial Age (1971) 415 pp.
  • Low, Benjamin R. C. Seth Low (1925).
  • Swett, Steven C. "The Test of a Reformer: A Study of Seth Low, New York City Mayor, 1902-1903," New-York Historical Society Quarterly (1960) 44#1 pp 5–41
  • Topper, Joby, “College Presidents, Public Image, and the Popular Press: A Comparative Study of Francis L. Patton of Princeton and Seth Low of Columbia, 1888–1902,” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 28 (2011), 63–114.

External links[edit]


Academic offices
Preceded by
Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard
President of Columbia University
1890 – 1901
Succeeded by
Nicholas Murray Butler
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert A. Van Wyck
Mayor of New York City
January 1, 1902 – December 31, 1903
Succeeded by
George B. McClellan, Jr.