Bainbridge Colby

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Bainbridge Colby
Bainbridge Colby, bw photo portrait, 1920 (3x4a).jpg
43rd United States Secretary of State
In office
February 13, 1920 – March 4, 1921
PresidentWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byRobert Lansing
Succeeded byCharles Evans Hughes
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 29th New York County district
In office
January 1, 1901 – December 31, 1902
Preceded byHal Bell
Succeeded byGeorge B. Clark
Personal details
Born(1869-12-22)December 22, 1869
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
DiedApril 11, 1950(1950-04-11) (aged 80)
Bemus Point, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican (Before 1912)
Progressive (1912–1920)
Democratic (1920–1950)
Other political
Independence (1916)
Spouse(s)Nathalie Sedgwick
Ann Ahlstrand Ely
EducationWilliams College (BA)
New York Law School (LLB)

Bainbridge Colby (December 22, 1869 – April 11, 1950) was an American politician and attorney who was[1] a co-founder of the United States Progressive Party and Woodrow Wilson's last Secretary of State. Colby was a Republican until he helped co-found the National Progressive Party in 1912; he ran for multiple offices as a member of that party, but never won.[2][3]

Colby served as Secretary of State from February 1920[3] until 1921, at a time when President Woodrow Wilson was medically handicapped and largely out of touch. He is best known for promoting a Good Neighbor policy for Latin America, and for denouncing the communist regime in Russia.

Early life and education[edit]

Bainbridge Colby was born in St. Louis, Missouri on December 22, 1869.[3] He graduated from Williams College, where he was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa,[4] then attended Columbia Law School and New York Law School (1892).[5]


He was admitted to the New York bar, and served as a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 29th D.) 1901–1902. He spoke at the Colby College commencement on June 19, 1933, at which time he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.[6]


At the New York state election, 1914, Colby ran on the Progressive ticket for U.S. Senator from New York, but was defeated by Republican James W. Wadsworth, Jr. At the New York state election, 1916, he ran again, this time on the Progressive and Independence League tickets, but was defeated by Republican William M. Calder.

During World War I, Colby was a member of the United States Shipping Board.

Colby was a special assistant to the United States Attorney General in an anti-trust action in 1917, and represented the U.S. at the Inter-Allied Conference at Paris the same year.

Secretary of State[edit]

Wilson appointed him Secretary of State on March 23, 1920, after firing his predecessor, Robert Lansing, for insubordination. Wilson's appointment of Colby was "bizarre" says historian John Milton Cooper, for Colby had no diplomatic experience or skills. Editorial responses from leading newspapers ranged "from puzzlement to outrage."[7] Colby was chosen because he was totally loyal to Wilson.

On August 26, eight days after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Colby issued the official proclamation that it had become a part of the Constitution of the United States, guaranteeing women the right to vote.[8] In December 1920, Colby embarked on the battleship Florida for an official goodwill cruise to South America.[9] His goodwill trip set the stage for the transition to a "Good Neighbor" policy.[10]

Colby advocated his policies firmly even as Wilson suffered the debilitating side effects of a series of strokes. Colby supported the League of Nations and established a precedent for not recognizing newly Communist Russia; that would be reversed in 1933.[11] In a major statement in 1920, Colby declared:

It is not possible for the Government of the United States to recognize the present rulers of Russia as a government with which the relations common to friendly governments can be maintained. This conviction has nothing to do with any particular political or social structure which the Russian people themselves may see fit to embrace. It rests upon a wholly different set of facts....that the existing regime in Russia is based upon the negation of every principle of honor and good faith, and every usage and convention, underlying the whole structure of international law; the negation, in short, of every principle upon which it is possible to base harmonious and trustful relations, whether of nations or of individuals. The responsible leaders of the regime have frequently and openly boasted that they are willing to sign agreements and undertakings with foreign Powers while not having the slightest intention of observing such undertakings or carrying out such is their understanding that the very existence of Bolshevism in Russia, the maintenance of their own rule, depends, and must continue to depend, upon the occurrence of revolutions in all other great civilized nations, including the United States, which will overthrow and destroy their governments and set up Bolshevist rule in their stead. They have made it quite plain that they intend to use every means, including, of course, diplomatic agencies, to promote such revolutionary movements in other countries.[12]

He served until Wilson left office on March 4, 1921.

The Library of Congress maintains a collection of Colby’s documents.[13]

Later career[edit]

After leaving office as secretary of state, Colby continued to practice law for the remainder of his career. As an attorney, Colby accepted Woodrow Wilson as a partner after the latter's presidency; Colby left that firm in 1923. Earlier in his career, Colby's most notable client was Mark Twain.

Personal life[edit]

Colby was married twice. His first wife was Nathalie Sedgwick, who became a novelist; they were married in 1895 and had three children (Katherine Sedgwick Colby, Nathalie Sedgwick Colby and Frances Bainbridge Colby). Colby decided to divorce his wife while he was in Paris in 1928.[14] The divorce was finalized in Reno, Nevada later that year.[15] The marriage apparently was very contentious and Colby felt the need to include in his divorce decree a monthly payment of $1,500.00 to stop Nathalie from "ridiculing him in her writings".[14] Less than a year later, he married Anne Ahlstrand Ely, who was politically engaged in many of the same issues as Colby, such as women's suffrage. (As Secretary of State, Colby would issue the proclamation announcing that the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, had been ratified as part of the U.S. Constitution.)[16]

When Colby died in 1950, his widow donated much memorabilia to the local library; it eventually found a home at the Library of Congress.[17] She never remarried and died in 1963.[17] At the time of his death,[18] Colby was the last surviving member of the Wilson Cabinet.


  1. ^ Greenbaum, Fred (2000). Men Against Myths: The Progressive Response. ISBN 9780275968885.
  2. ^ "Colby, Bainbridge". InfoPlease. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Colby, Bainbridge" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 30 (12th ed.). London & New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company. p. 721.
  4. ^ Politician members in Missouri,, accessed October 9, 2009
  5. ^ "American President: Bainbridge Colby (1920 - 1921)". Archived from the original on 2008-12-28. Retrieved 2009-03-07. The Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia
  6. ^ "Index of B ainbridge Colby speeches". Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  7. ^ John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009) p 556
  8. ^ "The Learning Network". The New York Times. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  9. ^ "The New York Times, December 5, 1920" (PDF). Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  10. ^ Smith, 1963
  11. ^ McFadden, 1995
  12. ^ "Bainbridge Colby". Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  13. ^ "Bainbridge Colby papers, 1863-1950".
  14. ^ a b "Milestones: Nov. 11, 1929". Time. November 11, 1929. Retrieved November 20, 2019 – via
  15. ^ "COLBY FAMILY & OTHERS". Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  16. ^ "19th Amendment adopted". HISTORY. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  17. ^ a b "COLBY FAMILY & OTHERS". Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  18. ^ "The Grape Belt - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved November 20, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • McFadden, David W. "After the Colby Note: The Wilson Administration and the Bolsheviks, 1920-21." Presidential Studies Quarterly 25.4 (1995): 741-750. online
  • Smith, Daniel M. "Bainbridge Colby and the Good Neighbor Policy, 1920-1921." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 50.1 (1963): 56-78.
  • Smith, Daniel Malloy. "Aftermath of war: Bainbridge Colby and Wilsonian diplomacy, 1920-1921" Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society vol 80 (1970)
  • Winid, Boguslaw W. "After the Colby Note: The Wilson Administration and the Polish-Bolshevik War." Presidential Studies Quarterly 26.4 (1996): 1165-1169. online

External links[edit]

New York State Assembly
Preceded by
Hal Bell
New York State Assembly
New York County, 29th District

Succeeded by
George B. Clark
Political offices
Preceded by U.S. Secretary of State
Served under: Woodrow Wilson

1920 – 1921
Succeeded by