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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,491

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This is the grave of George Cortelyou.

Born in New York in 1862, Cortelyou was old money. So old that it should have been spelled “olde.” His family came to New Netherland before it was even New York. For reasons that I am not entirely sure of, he only went to what later became Westfield State University in Massachusetts for his undergraduate degree. I think the family was downwardly mobile. At this time, it was a normal school so maybe he wanted to become a teacher. But he ended up back where his class suggested it should be, going to George Washington and then Georgetown for law school. He did teach for awhile after this, got married, had a few kids.

In 1891, Cortelyou decided to finally use those family and class connections. He got a job as secretary to New York’s chief postal inspector. The Postal Service doesn’t seem like the fastest way to rise and this series has not suggested it was particularly common, but it worked out well enough for Cortelyou. What seems to have happened here to lead to this is that he was involved in some investments with partners that did not work out. Meanwhile, some of the leading investors had died. He was determined to work off the debt and pay off their estates, so he needed a steady job. It worked and he was able to do this A year later, he got promoted to secretary to the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General and that put him in Washington. Then Grover Cleveland named him his chief clerk. Cleveland then told William McKinley that the new president would be well off keeping Cortelyou in the job, for he was good at it. Cortelyou was with McKinley in Buffalo when Leon Czolgosz shot the president and he tasked his assistant with telling his wife Ida.

Theodore Roosevelt liked Cortelyou a lot too. They were almost the same age and from the same class. What made Cortelyou really good to all these presidents is that he was a very good organizer at turning unwieldy bureaucracies efficient. The White House was a mess and Cortelyou spent all these years turning it into a professional place. Surely some benefit to all this. So TR kept him on and Cortelyou created protocols that became necessary to follow no matter the president. He also professionalized the connections between journalists and the White House, including giving the reporters a place to work, the ancestor of the modern press room. In addition, he started the process of daily news briefings for the president, in this case, through news clippings TR started his day reviewing.

Well, Roosevelt definitely liked efficiency and order. He was a Progressive after all. So in 1903, he bumped Cortelyou up to the Cabinet, with the creation of the Commerce and Labor Department. It was in 1913 that these were separated into different positions. Cortelyou became the first Secretary of this department. He did that for about a year and a half. Then TR made him Postmaster General in March 1905 and then later as Secretary of the Treasury for the last two years of Roosevelt’s term. Oh, he also was Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1904 to 1907. This is a curious rise. Cortelyou didn’t really bring a lot of expertise into any of this, except perhaps to the Post Office. But he was such a good administrator and this was still an era of the Renaissance Man, so it didn’t really matter. The modernization and professionalization did matter.

On the other hand, Cortelyou was the kind of guy who people would describe as “oily” and “smooth,” i.e. a phony. It’s hard to know of course–it’s pretty clear that he didn’t have a lot of patience for the Gilded Age way of doing things in dark smoky rooms over whiskey and cigars and so he might have just annoyed people who were used to that kind of thing. In any case, as effectively a fixer for Roosevelt, he didn’t have to worry that much about what anyone else thought about him. Moreover, he also liked athletic activity and so was a frequent companion to Roosevelt on his need for random swims and wrestling matches to prove his masculinity to himself again and again.

Now, it was not an easy job to be Secretary of the Treasury in 1907. That year saw a brief, but very real panic that threatened to blow up the economy. It was less than a decade since the economy finally recovered from the Panic of 1893, which really lasted until 1898. What saved the economy was Roosevelt appealing to J.P. Morgan to help, even if they had tense relations over the trustbusting stuff. Cortelyou played a pretty big role in working all this out and it did save the economy from complete disaster. Morgan also respected Cortelyou’s administrative abilities and had previously helped smooth over his arrival to head the RNC, which annoyed the Old Guard Republicans who were still weeping over Mark Hanna‘s death.

Longer term, what Cortelyou brought to all this was a simple realization that his position did not have enough power to really do much. This realization was really important. One thing I talk about in my classes these days is how early 20th century Americans were living in a modern world that required modern ideas and organization but they all dreamed of living in the 19th century and just could not adjust to the new world until the Great Depression forced them to do so. This was true of Herbert Hoover and it was true of Samuel Gompers (in fact, it’s been in my Labor History course this semester that I’ve really pushed this line for the first time in a significant way and I think it works to help students understand why the CIO was so necessary). So just getting American policymakers to realize that they have to actually do something to adjust to a 20th century economy was a big step and to his credit, Cortelyou really understood this. He pushed for a more flexible currency and even more so, he said that the nation simply had to have a central banking system. This laid the groundwork for the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, which wasn’t enough to staunch a bleeding economy but sure was a big step forward.

Interestingly, Cortelyou left public life at the end of the Roosevelt years and never returned to it. He used his connections and bureaucratic skills in the private sector and to make himself a lot of money. That led him to become president of Consolidated Gas, which is the precursor to Con Ed, the huge energy company. He bought a huge home in Long Island and lived there with his family, just doing the rich guy thing.

Cortelyou died in 1940. He was 78 years old.

George Cortelyou is buried in Memorial Cemetery of Saint John’s Church, Laurel Hollow, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of the Treasury, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Franklin MacVeagh is in Chicago and L.M. Shaw is in Denison, Iowa. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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