Nelson W. Aldrich

Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (/ˈɔːldrɪk/; November 6, 1841 – April 16, 1915) was a prominent American politician and a leader of the Republican Party in the United States Senate, where he served from 1881 to 1911. By the 1890s, he was one of the "Big Four" key Republicans who largely controlled the major decisions of the Senate, along with Orville H. Platt, William B. Allison, and John Coit Spooner.[1] 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 tariff and monetary policy in the first decade of the 20th century.

Nelson W. Aldrich
Nelson W. Aldrich 1841–1915.jpg
United States Senator
from Rhode Island
In office
October 5, 1881 – March 3, 1911
Preceded byAmbrose Burnside
Succeeded byHenry 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 byBenjamin T. Eames
Succeeded byHenry J. Spooner
Member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich

(1841-11-06)November 6, 1841
Foster, Rhode Island
DiedApril 16, 1915(1915-04-16) (aged 73)
New York City
Resting placeSwan Point Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
ChildrenLucy, Abby, Richard, Winthrop, and Edward
Alma materEast Greenwich Academy
Military service
AllegianceUnited States United States
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1862
Unit10th Rhode Island Infantry
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

Born in Foster, Rhode Island, Aldrich served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. After the war, he became a partner in a large wholesale grocery firm and won election to the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He served a single term in the United States House of Representatives before winning election to the Senate. In the Senate, he helped to create an extensive system of tariffs that protected American factories and farms from foreign competition, and he was a cosponsor of the Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act. He also helped win Senate approval of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish–American War.

Aldrich led the passage of the Aldrich–Vreeland Act, which established the National Monetary Commission to study the causes of the Panic of 1907. He served as chair of that commission, which drew up the Aldrich Plan as a basis for a reform of the financial regulatory system. The Aldrich Plan strongly influenced the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which established the Federal Reserve System. Aldrich also sponsored the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed for a direct federal income tax.

Deeply committed to the efficiency model of the Progressive Era, he believed that his financial and trade policies would lead to greater efficiency. Reformers, however, denounced him as representative of the evils of big business. His daughter Abigail married into the Rockefeller family, and his descendants, including namesake Nelson A. Rockefeller, became powerful figures in American politics and banking.[2]

Family backgroundEdit

Aldrich was born in Foster, Rhode Island, into a middle-class family purportedly descended from noted English immigrants John Winthrop,[3] William Wickenden[4], and Roger Williams.[5] His branch passed through generations of declining circumstances. His father was Anan E. Aldrich, a mill hand, and mother Abby Burgess. He attended public schools in East Killingly, Connecticut and the East Greenwich Academy, a boarding school in Rhode Island.[6]

Early careerEdit

Abigail Pearce Truman Chapman

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.

He served briefly in the Union Army during the American Civil War when he enlisted as a private in Company D of the 10th Rhode Island Infantry on May 26, 1862. Aldrich's company served for three months at Fort DeRussy, which was part of the defenses of Washington, D.C. Aldrich was mustered out of service with the regiment on September 1, 1862.[7]

On October 9, 1866, he married Abigail Pearce Truman "Abby" Chapman, a wealthy woman with impressive antecedents. They had a total of eleven children.

Alrich began to debate at the local public lecture hall on various political issues of the era. In 1872, after the loss of a child and in the midst of health issues, Aldrich took a 5-month tour of Europe and renewed his life's ambition. Aldrich became involved with politics and with the help of local business people in Providence, Aldrich also became a director of a small bank.[8]

Early political careerEdit

By 1877, Nelson had a major effect on state politics, even before his election to the United States Congress.[9] He served as a member of the Providence City Council from 1869 to 1874 and as its president in 1872 and 1873. He served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1875 and 1876 and served as Speaker of the House in 1876.

U.S. SenateEdit

In 1878 the Republican bosses of Rhode Island endorsed him for the U.S. House of Representatives; he won and served one term, 1879 to 1881. In 1881 he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Rhode Island legislature. He served in the Senate for 30 years from 1881 to 1911. He was the longest-serving United States Senator from Rhode Island before the 36-year tenure of Claiborne Pell in the late 20th century.

His long tenure in the Senate was assisted by Rhode Island's restriction of the office to property owners and native-born citizens willing to pay a poll tax, and later, by a legislature that gerrymandered in favor of small Republican towns. Aldrich occupied himself with national tariff issues when arriving in the Senate, and supported the tariff as vital to business owners and ordinary citizens alike. Alrich actively sought out the opinion of business leaders and became friendly with the Sugar Trust. Aldrich sometimes even secured the tariff rate to the amount that Theodore Havemeyer, a Sugar Trust member, requested.[8]

By the 1890s, he was one of the "Big Four" key Republicans who largely controlled the major decisions of the Senate, along with Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, William B. Allison of Iowa and John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. Aldrich's main power base was his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee which oversaw bank regulation and monetary policy.[1] In the early 1890s, Aldrich was considering leaving the Senate, however, a businessman from Rhode Island, Marsden J. Perry, convinced him to stay by making Aldrich a partner in a plan to consolidate and electrify the state's trolley systems. Aldrich soon became a millionaire. Aldrich was opposed to backing currency with silver and was involved with convincing McKinley to run on a gold platform in 1896.[8]

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.

National financeEdit

Reformers hated and feared Senator Aldrich for killing reforms disliked by big business. 1906 Puck cartoon.

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."[2]

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.

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 ActEdit

Following the Panic of 1907, Aldrich took control as chairman of the Congressionally established National Monetary Commission. A 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.[10] He worked with several key bankers and economists, including Paul Warburg, Abram Andrew, Frank A. Vanderlip, and Henry Davison, to design a plan for an American central bank in 1911. This work included a trip to Jekyll Island in 1910 to finalize the details of the federal reserve banking plan.[11] In 1913 Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Reserve Act patterned after Aldrich's vision, creating the modern Federal Reserve System.

Foreign affairsEdit

Aldrich opposed entry into the Spanish–American War, but supported McKinley when it began. He played a central role in winning two-thirds Senate approval of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, and included annexation of the Philippines.[12] He helped frame the Platt Amendment of 1901, which limited the American role in Cuba. He supported the Panama Canal, but was critical of Roosevelt's general Caribbean policy.[2] 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 very harsh labor conditions in the colony.[13]

Family prominenceEdit

His daughter Abigail Greene "Abby" Aldrich was a philanthropist[14] who married philanthropist John Davison Rockefeller, Jr.,[15] 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.[16] Aldrich's son Richard S. Aldrich served in Congress from 1923 to 1933,[17] and his son Winthrop Williams Aldrich served as chairman of the Chase National Bank.[18] American film director, writer and producer, Robert Aldrich was his grandson.


Portrait of Senator Aldrich

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

He developed an elaborate country estate in the Warwick Neck section of Warwick, Rhode Island. The estate is now known as the Aldrich Mansion and is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rhode Island.

Death and burialEdit

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.

The Aldrich Middle School in Warwick, Rhode Island is named in his honor.

Aldrich Residence Hall at The University of Rhode Island in Kingston, RI is named in his honor.

Aldrich Hall at Harvard Business School in Boston, MA was made possible through a gift from John D. Rockefeller and is named in honor of his father-in-law, Nelson W. Aldrich.

Congressional committee assignmentsEdit

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


  1. ^ a b Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17–31
  2. ^ a b c Sternstein, "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth" (1974).
  3. ^ "EVEN BRAHMINS GET THE BLUES", The New York Times, July 31, 1988
  4. ^ John Steere Family Branches (1972)
  5. ^ WILL LISSNER, "Winthrop Aldrich Dead; Banker and Diplomat, 88", New York Times, February 26, 1974
  6. ^ U.S. Congressional bioguide
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c Lowenstein, Roger (2015). America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 35–37, 42. ISBN 9781594205491.
  9. ^ Bernice Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family, 1993, p. 17
  10. ^ Europe and Central Banks, The New York Times, January 9, 1910, Annual Financial Review, pg 8.
  11. ^ Lowenstein, Roger (2015). America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 108–123. ISBN 9781594205491.
  12. ^ Paolo E. Coletta, "Bryan, McKinley, and the Treaty of Paris," Pacific Historical Review (1957) 26#2 pp. 131–146 in JSTOR
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ "Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller, 1874–1948". Rockefeller Archive Center. Archived from the original on October 15, 2016. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  15. ^ "Abby John D. Rockefeller, 1874–1960". Rockefeller Archive Center. Archived from the original on May 28, 2015. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  16. ^ "Rockefeller Family Archives". Rockefeller Archive Center. Archived from the original on December 13, 2011. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  17. ^ "ALDRICH, Richard Steere, (1884–1941)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  18. ^ Lowe, T. (1916). National Courier, Volume 7, Issue 35. T. Lowe. p. 13.

Further readingEdit

  • Aldrich Jr., Nelson W., Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1988. justification by a descendant
  • Gould, Lewis. The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17–31
  • Kert, Bernice. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Phillips, David Graham, "The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, The Head of It All," Cosmopolitan, March 1906. online, by a muckraker
  • Steffens, Lincoln, "Rhode Island: A State For Sale", McClure's Magazine, February 1904, 337–353, by a muckraker
  • Stephenson, Nathaniel W. Nelson W. Aldrich: A Leader In American Politics. 1930. Scholarly biography
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth." in John A. Garraty, ed. Encyclopedia of American Biography (1974) pp 25–27
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "Corruption in the Gilded Age Senate: Nelson W. Aldrich and the Sugar Trust," Capitol Studies 6 (Spring 1978): pp. 13–37. online
  • Sternstein, Jerome L. "King Leopold II, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and the Strange Beginnings of American Economic Penetration of the Congo," African Historical Studies in JSTOR
  • Wicker, Elmus. The Great Debate on Banking Reform: Nelson Aldrich and the Origins of the Fed, Ohio State University Press, 2005.
  • Selections from the Nelson W. Aldrich Papers at the Library of Congress, particularly pertaining to his work with the National Monetary Commission

External linksEdit

U.S. 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
U.S. 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