New York’s Most Powerful Business and Political Men in the Glittering Age of McKinley

They all sign an invitation to honor Mark Hanna and Cornelius Bliss, who managed McKinley’s successful 1896 presidential campaign

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These include: Theodore Roosevelt and his nemesis boss Tom Platt; leading industrialists, like John Jacob Astor (who went down on the Titanic), Chauncey Depew, and William E. Dodge; the most important Jewish financiers and politicos of the day, like Jacob Schiff, Edwin Einstein, Edward Lauterbach and Isaac Seligman; Augustus D. Juilliard, founder...

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New York’s Most Powerful Business and Political Men in the Glittering Age of McKinley

They all sign an invitation to honor Mark Hanna and Cornelius Bliss, who managed McKinley’s successful 1896 presidential campaign

These include: Theodore Roosevelt and his nemesis boss Tom Platt; leading industrialists, like John Jacob Astor (who went down on the Titanic), Chauncey Depew, and William E. Dodge; the most important Jewish financiers and politicos of the day, like Jacob Schiff, Edwin Einstein, Edward Lauterbach and Isaac Seligman; Augustus D. Juilliard, founder of the Juilliard School; and dozens more.

The presidential campaign of 1896 is one of the most significant elections in United States history. In 1896, the country faced big questions in both the domestic- and foreign-policy arenas. Domestically, the country suffered from a severely depressed economy begun by the Panic of 1893. When creditors called in the loans of a company that was very actively traded on the stock exchange, the company failed. This set off a selling frenzy. The subsequent failure of many businesses and banks accelerated the rapid decline of the economy. Low public confidence in the Cleveland administration was also an issue, and the value of the gold-based U.S. currency dropped. Some elements of the population, particularly farmers and populists, clamored for the government to put more money in circulation, backed by silver rather than gold. The business community feared that rapid inflation would result from moving away from a gold standard. The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, the foremost spokesperson for a silver-backed currency. The Republicans nominated William McKinley, a sound money supporter who would back the business community. Wall Street and large business interests saw Bryan’s campaign as a threat, and a Bryan victory as meaning a debasement of the currency that amounted to dishonoring it by devaluing investments already made, and repudiating debts (as they could then be repaid with currency worth less). In the foreign sphere, President Cleveland was opposed to the United States having imperialist designs, while critics thought the U.S. was duty-bound to compete with the great European powers and take its place in the sun by acquiring colonies. They saw Cleveland as having shirked his responsibilities. This, they were confident, McKinley would not do.

Mark Hanna was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and was given complete discretion in appointing an executive committee to assist him in running McKinley’s campaign. The campaign had an eastern headquarters in New York, which existed in part to give Hanna a base of operations for his fundraising efforts. The lead roles there were played by Hanna; McKinley’s cousin, William McKinley Osborne; and Cornelius N. Bliss.

Cornelius N. Bliss was chairman of the Republican committee in New York in 1887 and 1888, and contributed much to the success of the Benjamin Harrison ticket in his state in the 1888 election. He served as treasurer of the Republican National Committee from 1892 to 1904. He was also a longtime president of the American Protective Tariff League, which in 1896 made him a supporter of McKinley, who also favored tariffs. After McKinley won, Bliss turned down his offer to become Secretary of the Treasury, but accepted the post of Secretary of the Interior, maintaining that position until 1899. Offered by McKinley the vice presidential slot in his 1900 reelection campaign, he declined, so the nod went instead to Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, Bliss was Roosevelt’s campaign manager, and he handled (and indeed solicited) much of the corporate funds that flowed into TR’s campaign coffers.

The Republican establishment and business community in New York were overjoyed by McKinley’s election on November 3, 1896, which they believed had saved the honor of the United States and the integrity of the economy. They reached out to the two men they saw as most responsible for the victory – Hanna and Bliss – and asked them to a dinner in their honor.

Letter signed, City of New York, Office of the Mayor letterhead, November 5, 1896, to Hanna and Bliss. This is Bliss’s copy of the invitation. “The undersigned, citizens of New York, desire to express to you their appreciation of the devoted and effective service which you have rendered to the American people in repelling the recent assault upon the honor and the life of the nation. They accordingly request that you will do them the honor to dine with them and other like-minded citizens at Delmonico’s in the City of New York on as early a day as may suit your convenience.”

Over 30 men signed this invitation, and they read like a who’s who of New York society at the time. The most prominent are: Theodore Roosevelt, future President of the United States; his future Secretary of State, Elihu Root; John Jacob Astor, scion of the Astor family who went down on the Titanic; New York mayor William L. Strong; Edwin Einstein, the 8th ever Jewish member of the House of Representatives; his brother, noted manufacturer David L. Einstein; Jacob Schiff, most important Jewish financier of the age; Edward Lauterbach, Chairman of the New York Republican County Committee and trustee of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum; Isaac Seligman, banker whose brother Joseph was the first Jew nominated to a presidential cabinet; Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central Railroad, and a future U.S. Senator; B.F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison; William E. Dodge, industrialist and sometime President of the New York Chamber of Commerce, and John Sloane, Vice President of that organization; Union general Daniel Butterfield, who wrote “Taps”; Horace Porter, aide to both Grant and Sherman in the Civil War, U.S. Ambassador to France; Henry W. Cannon, former Comptroller of the U.S. Currency under President Arthur and President of the Chase National Bank; industrialist M.C.D. Borden; Congressman Anson McCook; Thomas C. Platt, U.S. Senator and the boss of N.Y. politics, nemesis of Theodore Roosevelt; John A. Stewart, banker and future President of Princeton University; Richard A. McCurdy, insurance executive and banker; Thomas H. Hubbard, philanthropist and financier, best known for his enthusiasm for Arctic exploration, contributed to the discovery of the North Pole, President of the Peary Arctic Club, formed to give Admiral Robert E. Peary financial backing in his polar quest; Frederick Grant, son of President Grant; and Augustus D. Juilliard, whose estate founded the famous Juilliard School.

This is an extraordinary assemblage of New York’s most powerful men in the business and political communities in the glittering Age of McKinley. We recently obtained it directly from a Bliss descendant, and it has never before been offered for sale.

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