Monday, November 7, 2011

A Quirky Political Dynasty

Heather Cox Richardson

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day on which Jefferson Davis was elected president of the Confederate States of America, and I had every intention of writing about that epic event for today’s post. But when I started digging around in the history of that date, another event jumped out at me. November 6, 1841 was the birth date of Nelson W. Aldrich.

It’s a little astonishing that few people nowadays have heard of Nelson Aldrich, for in the late nineteenth century, he ran the Senate. And he ran it, unabashedly, in the service of corporations.

By 1881, when Aldrich entered the upper chamber of Congress, tariffs were crucial to the protection of American big business. High tariffs of around 50% of an item’s value guaranteed that foreign products could not compete with American-made products. The original intent of the Republicans who began the nation’s system of protective tariffs was to give domestic industry breathing space to develop. But by the 1880s, those industries were some of the most powerful in the world, and consumers charged that protection had become a tool to enable American industrialists to raise prices. As the newly rich industrialists—and their wives and daughters—spent their vast fortunes on Fifth Avenue mansions, racehorses, jewels, and lavish parties while workers eked by on pennies and farmers fell into debt, more and more voices started to call for “tariff reform” to lower the tariffs.

Against these voices, Senator Aldrich stood unbowed, marshaling his forces. He believed that society was based on an economic hierarchy, and that those at the top of that hierarchy—the wealthy industrialists—should run the nation. He had little respect for the average man who was, in his opinion, easy to mislead. The role of government was to promote industry, Aldrich thought, and he worked hard to protect steel manufacturers, railroad barons, wool interests, and so on, against what he saw as the delusions of the crowd. As the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Aldrich wielded great power. As the man who determined how the Republican Party’s campaign money was spent, he wielded even more. The tariff fight consumed the country in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth; during those thirty years it was Senator Aldrich who held the Republican Party to the service of industrialists.

I’ve been spending time lately with Senator Aldrich and, while he undoubtedly makes it onto my list of unsavory companions, there is a funny quirk about his family that makes me unwilling to focus solely on his rather reactionary contribution to American history.

In 1901, Senator Aldrich’s daughter Abby* married J. D. Rockefeller’s son. Their third child was Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, who became vice-president under Gerald Ford. In contrast to his grandfather, Nelson Rockefeller gave his name to the moderates of his day, who are still known as “Rockefeller Republicans.”

His grandfather—who died when the boy was seven—would not have been pleased.

* Abby was important in her own right. She was instrumental in establishing both the Museum of Modern Art and Colonial Williamsburg.

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