Nelson W. Aldrich

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Nelson W. Aldrich
Nelson W. Aldrich.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
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.

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. 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,[citation needed] and the Federal Reserve System. He stated that he believed these reforms would lead to greater efficiency. Aldrich became wealthy with insider investments in street railroads, sugar, rubber and banking.[citation needed] 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. His other son Winthrop W. Aldrich became a banker and financier, while his other daughter, Lucy Aldrich became a noted philanthropist. Her son and his grandson Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, served as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford.

Family background[edit]

Portrait of Senator Aldrich

Aldrich was born in Foster, Rhode Island, into a family descended from noted English immigrants John Winthrop, William Wickenden, and Roger Williams.[1][2] His branch passed through generations of declining circumstances. His father was Anan E. Aldrich, an industrial mill hand, and mother Abby Burgess. The first American Aldrich ancestor was George Aldrich, an immigrant who settled in Mendon, Massachusetts in the 17th century. The Aldrich Family Association was located in the neighboring community of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, once part of Mendon, on the Rhode Island border, home also of the family cemetery. It was in Rhode Island that Nelson Aldrich grew up and prospered. He attended public schools in East Killingly, Conn., (the easternmost portion of Connecticut) and the East Greenwich Academy a boarding school in Rhode Island.[3] The Aldrich family has, since the advent of Nelson W., grown to become a political dynasty on the American landscape, with U.S. Senators, a Vice President, and various political figures in a number of states.

Political 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. On October 9, 1866 he married Abigail Pearce Truman "Abby" 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.[4] 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 U.S. 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, Charles Sanger Mellen, was Wall Street banker J. P. Morgan's loyal ally. 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.[5]

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."

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.

The plan went awry. After 1909, the U.S. lived a major political transformation. Democrats and progressive Teddy Roosevelt Republicans swept many state elections. Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. On Feb. 3, 1913, the legislatures in Delaware, New Mexico and Wyoming voted for the amendment, pushing the total to the required 36 states. The 16th Amendment was officially adopted on Feb. 25, three and a half years after the Taft-Aldrich compromise had supposedly relegated the income tax to the dust bin.

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 was named chairman of the Congressionally established National Monetary Commission. An ostensible 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.[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. A key meeting that shaped the Federal Reserve Act was held in secret in November, 1910, at the Jekyll Island Club on Jekyll Island, Georgia. Aldrich and J.P. Morgan were both members of the Jekyll Island Club (also known as The Millionaires Club), though this doesn't necessarily mean that by extension they were friends and shared similar business philosophies and/or interests. In 1913 Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act patterned after Aldrich's vision into law.

Family Prominence[edit]

His daughter Abigail Greene "Abby" Aldrich was a philanthropist[7] who married philanthropist John Davison Rockefeller, Jr.,[8] 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.[9] Aldrich's son Richard S. Aldrich served in Congress from 1923 to 1933,[10] and his son Winthrop Williams Aldrich served as chairman of the Chase National Bank).[11]

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

Aldrich built 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.

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


Aldrich Jr., Nelson W., Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1988.


  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. ^ U.S. Congressional bioguide
  4. ^ Bernice Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family, 1993, p. 17
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Europe and Central Banks, New York Times, January 9, 1910, Annual Financial Review, pg 8.
  7. ^ "Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller, 1874-1948". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Abby John D. Rockefeller, 1874-1960". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Rockefeller Family Archives". Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  10. ^ "ALDRICH, Richard Steere, (1884 - 1941)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  11. ^ Lowe, T. (1916). National Courier, Volume 7, Issue 35. T. Lowe. p. 13. 

Further reading[edit]

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