Nelson W. Aldrich

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Nelson W. Aldrich
Nelson W. Aldrich 1841–1915.jpg
United States Senator
from Rhode Island
In office
October 5, 1881 – March 3, 1911
Preceded by Ambrose Burnside
Succeeded by Henry F. Lippitt
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Rhode Island's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1879 – October 4, 1881
Preceded by Benjamin T. Eames
Succeeded by Henry J. Spooner
Member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich
(1841-11-06)November 6, 1841
Foster, Rhode Island
Died April 16, 1915(1915-04-16) (aged 73)
New York, New York
Resting place Swan Point Cemetery
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Abigail Pearce Truman Chapman
(m. 1866)
Children Lucy Aldrich, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Richard Steere Aldrich, Winthrop W. Aldrich
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. By the 1890s he was one of the "Big Four" key Republicans who largely controlled the major decisions of the Senate.[1]

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. 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. His most important contribution was the design of the modern Federal Reserve System. Deeply committed to the efficiency model of the Progressive Era, he believed these reforms would lead to greater efficiency. Reformers, however, denounced him as representative of the evils of Big business. Aldrich became wealthy with investments in street railroads, sugar, rubber and banking. He married into the Rockefeller family, and his descendents became powerful figures in American politics and banking.[2]

Family background[edit]

Portrait of Senator Aldrich

Aldrich was born in Foster, Rhode Island, into a middle-class family descended from noted English immigrants John Winthrop, William Wickenden, and Roger Williams.[3] His branch passed through generations of declining circumstances. His father was Anan E. Aldrich, a mill hand, and mother Abby Burgess. He attended public schools in East Killingly, Conn. and the East Greenwich Academy a boarding school in Rhode Island.[4]

Early career[edit]

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.

He served briefly in the Union Army during the American Civil War when he enlisted as a private in Company D of the 10th Rhode Island Infantry on May 26, 1862. Aldrich's company served for three months at Fort DeRussy, which was part of the defenses of Washington, D.C.. Aldrich was mustered out of service with the regiment on September 1, 1862.[5]

On October 9, 1866, he married Abigail Pearce Truman "Abby" Chapman, a wealthy woman with impressive antecedents. They had a total of eleven children.

Political career[edit]

By 1877, Nelson had a major effect on state politics, even before his election to the United States Congress.[6] He served as a member of the Providence City Council from 1869 to 1874 and as its president in 1872 and 1873. He served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1875 and 1876 and served as Speaker of the House in 1876.

U.S. Senate[edit]

In 1878 the Republican bosses of Rhode Island endorsed him for the US House of Representatives; he won and served one term, 1879 to 1881. In 1881 he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Rhode Island legislature. He served in the Senate for 30 years from 1881 to 1911. He was the longest serving United States Senator from Rhode Island before the 36-year tenure of Claiborne Pell in the late 20th Century.

By the 1890s he was one of the "Big Four" key Republicans who largely controlled the major decisions of the Senate, along with William B. Allison of Iowa, John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. and Thomas C. Platt of New York. Aldrich's main power base was his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee which oversaw bank regulation and monetary policy.[7]

In 1906 Aldrich sold his interest in the Rhode Island street railway system to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, whose president, Charles Sanger Mellen, was Wall Street banker J. P. Morgan's loyal ally.

Reformers hated and feared Senator Aldrich for killing reforms disliked by big business. 1906 Puck cartoon.

National finance[edit]

The panic of 1907 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. Aldrich was quite candid about his scheme to block the House bill that had been passed, declaring to the Senate: "I shall vote for the corporation tax as a means to defeat the income tax."[8]

The compromise passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 318 to 14 in the House. The corporate excise tax would be levied, and the income-tax constitutional amendment would be sent out to the states for ratification—which Taft and Aldrich thought was impossible.

Taft tries to get progressive ideas into Aldrich

Aldrich 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.

Federal Reserve Act[edit]

Following the Panic of 1907, Aldrich took control as chairman of the Congressionally established National Monetary Commission. A proponent of Progressive Era themes of Efficiency and scientific expertise, he led a team of experts to study the European national banks. After his trip, he came to believe that Britain, Germany and France had much superior central banking systems.[9] 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 the Federal Reserve Act patterned after Aldrich's vision into law, creating the modern Federal Reserve System.

Foreign affairs[edit]

Aldrich opposed entry into the Spanish–American War, but supported McKinley when it began. He played a central role in winning two-thirds Senate approval of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, and included annexation of the Philippines.[10] He helped frame the Platt Amendment of 1901, which limited the American role in Cuba. He supported the Panama Canal, but was critical of Roosevelt's general Caribbean policy.[11] 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 very harsh labor conditions in the colony.[12]

Family Prominence[edit]

His daughter Abigail Greene "Abby" Aldrich was a philanthropist[13] who married philanthropist John Davison Rockefeller, Jr.,[14] and their second son Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was a four-term Governor of New York who campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, and was named Vice President of the United States under President Gerald Ford by the Congress in 1974.[15] Aldrich's son Richard S. Aldrich served in Congress from 1923 to 1933,[16] and his son Winthrop Williams Aldrich served as chairman of the Chase National Bank).[17]


Aldrich was very active in the Freemasons and was Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island.

Aldrich developed an elaborate country estate in the Warwick Neck section of Warwick, Rhode Island. The estate is now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rhode Island.

Death and burial[edit]

He died on April 16, 1915, in New York City, and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.


The Nelson W. Aldrich House on 110 Benevolent Street in Providence serves as the headquarters for the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The Aldrich Middle School in Warwick, Rhode Island is named in his honor.

Congressional committee assignments[edit]

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


  1. ^ Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17-31
  2. ^ Sternstein, "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth" (1974).
  3. ^ William G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island, a History, (W.W. Norton & Co. 1986), 149 [1]
  4. ^ U.S. Congressional bioguide
  5. ^
  6. ^ Bernice Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family, 1993, p. 17
  7. ^ Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17-31
  8. ^ Sternstein, "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth" (1974).
  9. ^ Europe and Central Banks, New York Times, January 9, 1910, Annual Financial Review, pg 8.
  10. ^ Paolo E. Coletta, "Bryan, McKinley, and the Treaty of Paris," Pacific Historical Review (1957) 26#2 pp. 131-146 in JSTOR
  11. ^ Sternstein, "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth" (1974).
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ "Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller, 1874-1948". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Abby John D. Rockefeller, 1874-1960". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  15. ^ "Rockefeller Family Archives". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  16. ^ "ALDRICH, Richard Steere, (1884 - 1941)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  17. ^ Lowe, T. (1916). National Courier, Volume 7, Issue 35. T. Lowe. p. 13. 
1906 muckraking Puck cartoon shows Aldrich as the Spiderman of the Senate who has trapped and is about to destroy needed legislation

Further reading[edit]

  • Aldrich Jr., Nelson W., Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1988. justification by a descendant
  • Gould, Lewis. The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17–31
  • Kert, Bernice. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Phillips, David Graham, "The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, The Head of It All," Cosmopolitan, March 1906. online, by a muckraker
  • Steffens, Lincoln, "Rhode Island: A State For Sale," McClure's Magazine, February 1904, 337 - 353, by a muckraker
  • Stephenson, Nathaniel W. Nelson W. Aldrich: A Leader In American Politics. 1930. Scholarly biography
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth." in John A. Garraty, ed. Encyclopedia of American Biography (1974) pp 25–27
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "Corruption in the Gilded Age Senate: Nelson W. Aldrich and the Sugar Trust," Capitol Studies 6 (Spring 1978): pp. 13–37. online
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "King Leopold II, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and the Strange Beginnings of American Economic Penetration of the Congo," African Historical Studies in JSTOR
  • Wicker, Elmus. The Great Debate on Banking Reform: Nelson Aldrich and the Origins of the Fed, Ohio State University Press, 2005.
  • Selections from the Nelson W. Aldrich Papers at the Library of Congress, particularly pertaining to his work with the National Monetary Commission

External links[edit]

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
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Rhode Island
October 5, 1881 – March 3, 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
Succeeded by
Boies Penrose