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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,540


This is the grave of Nelson Aldrich.

Born in 1841 in Foster, Rhode Island, Aldrich came from a family with long connections to the New England colonial elite, but which had fallen on hard times. In fact, his father worked as a millhand. He attended the public schools and then did manage to go to a boarding school in East Greenwich, which is today the wealthiest town in Rhode Island and probably was then too. Despite what you think about Newport, which has not been helped by its portrayal in the ghastly The Gilded Age show, there’s always been a lot of poverty surrounding the extreme wealth there.

Aldrich got a job in a grocery and did a good job, soon being taken in as a partner in the firm. When the Civil War began, Aldrich served, but only for a few months and he never saw action. The closest he came was being part of the defenses at Fort DeRussy in Washington, which was important enough, I mean the Confederates did want to take Washington, but then he was mustered out. I assume he then bought his way out of the draft, but I am not sure about that. In any case, his father might have been downwardly mobile, but he sure wasn’t going to be. He wanted money and he got it. In 1866, he married a wealthy woman named Abby Chapman and started getting involved in local politics. He became a good speaker on the issues of the day, was a rock-ribbed Republican (no one would be more so in coming years!) and started to think he might run for office himself. However, there were some setbacks. He and his wife had a child die and that really destroyed him. He also had some health issues of his own. But they had money and a nice half-year tour of Europe managed to rejuvenate him and get him back on the path of ambition.

So Aldrich came back and ran for a position on the Providence city council, which he won in 1868. That was followed by a stint in the state legislature and he became Speaker of the House for the body in 1875. He very quickly became the golden boy of the elite Republicans who ran state politics. These were the kind of classic right-wing revanchist Gilded Age Republicans who maybe at one time cared about slavery and its expansion but now only cared about making money, ensuring that there would be no regulations that would ever get in the way of their finances, and, of course, a very high tariff. Since Aldrich agreed with all of these things, plus was good at politics, the bosses fast-tracked him to Washington. He ran for Congress in 1878 and won, but only served one term because the state Republicans sent him to the Senate in 1881.

It did not take Aldrich long to be one of the most powerful Senate Republicans, in part because he so well represented every awful tendency of the Gilded Age Republican Party. He would stick around for the next 30 years. Now, Rhode Island was even more special than other states in the Gilded Age. Being small, the industrialists completely controlled it and to ensure their power, they restricted the franchise to property owners or those willing to pay a poll tax. This was Alabama level voting restrictions. Then, when it was forced open a bit, the legislature went all in on extreme gerrymandering to ensure that the Republicans would remain in power and thus Aldrich in the Senate. It wasn’t until the 1930s that anything like direct democracy really came to Rhode Island.

As senator, Aldrich was the ultimate Gilded Age Republican. High tariffs, 100% all the way. Disdain for the poor? You bet. Super pro-imperialist too. When it was time for tariff legislation, Aldrich would just cable the various industry leaders and ask them what they wanted the tariff to be. He chaired the Senate Finance Committee and worked three other leading Republican right-wingers–Orville Platt (CT), William Allison (IA), and John Spooner (WI) to control the Senate. These were guys getting rich off the job. When Aldrich himself thought of leaving the Senate to make more money, his friends in Rhode Island got him the right positions and investments and he soon became a millionaire and had the politics to back that up.

Aldrich was also good buddies with the super rich economic elites. In fact, his daughter married John D. Rockefeller Jr. He was horrified by the Populists and silver coinage and was quite influential in getting William McKinley the Republican nod in 1896 on a strict gold platform. Aldrich became a personal investor in the mining operations of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo, which is just lovely. Of course he would personally benefit from blood diamonds. And if you wanted to buy Aldrich for your legislation or to oppose some other legislation, he was very interested in cashing your check.

There were a couple of issues on which Aldrich was not terrible. He did believe in modern monetary policy and sponsored the Aldrich-Vreeland Act that created the National Monetary Commission after the Panic of 1907. This laid the groundwork for the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Aldrich also came to supporting the federal income tax and sponsored the legislation that became the Sixteenth Amendment. This took a long time–at one point he was a harsh critic of the income tax. So credit where it is due, but he was still terrible. He hated everything about the Progressive Era. He, like Mark Hanna and his other old line Republican friends, were horrified when Theodore Roosevelt became president. Trustbusting? What? Even though TR’s reforms are massively overrated, they were still reforms and they still horrified the Aldriches of the Senate.

The Aldrich mansion is a very nice place to have a wedding. Some in-laws went to a wedding there recently and I dropped them off, as they stayed with us for the night. It is very large, with a superb view of Narragansett Bay.

Aldrich left the Senate in 1911, on his own choosing. He lived in New York for the next few years, before dying there in 1915. He was 73 years old.

Nelson Aldrich is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island.

If you would like this series to visit other senators of the Gilded Age, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Sherman, another major power player of the era, is in Mansfield, Ohio, and the somewhat less important Charles Jones is in Pensacola, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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