Wednesday, March 4, 2020


Turn-of-Century Movers and Shakers





Chauncy Depew had an illustrious career. Long-time attorney for railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Depew would become a senator for New York State and was widely considered presidential material. In 1900, he was thought by many to be the best-known man in America. Some considered him the most persuasive and entertaining public speaker of his day. He gave the oration for the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. At the time, the statue was called, "Liberty Enlightening the World." Depew has been falsely quoted as referring to Lady Liberty as a stern gatekeeper to America but at the time no one associated the statue with immigration.

While one could hardly recommend New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men as a “good read,” these two-volumes (+1,000 pp.) are an interesting resource on turn-of-century New York Society, providing brief life sketches of the city and state’s most influential men. This was, of course, before women even had the right to vote. This was also the age of immigration, particularly for New York, which received more newcomers by far than any other state. Immigration may help to explain why so many of the biographies delve into the family pedigrees of the mostly Anglo-Saxon gentlemen. America’s Gilded Age was ending and the Great Wave of immigration (1880-1930) was picking up steam.

In fact, steam was in large part responsible for the many newcomers arriving on American shores.  By 1900, the steamship had cheapened and quickened passage across the Atlantic, making it possible for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to make the trip in great numbers. Previously, northern and western Europeans had dominated arrivals. Those “old immigrants” from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia were now greatly outnumbered by the “new immigrants” from such countries as Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Hungary.

Another change was that “return immigration” was now practical. A Sicilian farmer hoping to make enough money to buy a bit of land or to afford marriage could come, work for a year or more, pinch his pennies, and return home with a small fortune. He could become a migrant worker, or, to use the language of the time, a “bird of passage.” Few Americans today realize that a significant share of early-20th century immigrants—in the case of Italy, for example, some 40%--returned to their home countries to live out their lives.

Return migration was much rarer for the old immigrants who had come before the Civil War and the steamship era. Their Anglo-Saxon descendants tended to look upon the new immigrants as inferior people. One way these Americans, particularly the gentry, set themselves apart was to stress their colonial ancestry. They formed organizations like the Sons of the Sires and the Daughters of the American Revolution to validate descent from the pioneering men and women who had founded the nation and established its institutions.


This highlighting of ancestral roots is obvious in the biographical profiles of Prominent and Successful Men, almost all of which emphasize family histories. If not of Puritan or Dutch stock, we are assured that these admirable men come from long-established, distinguished roots. Even Juan Manuel Ceballos, though Spanish, is the scion of a family “of the purest blood” and resident of New York for several generations (60).

Nowhere do we get the sense that a large share of New York State’s population was foreign-born. Perhaps this is understandable in a volume dealing with the established elite. One William Nathan Cohen, son of a German immigrant and ostensibly a Jew, is among the very few we might call a minority. His biography evokes the Horatio Alger tales of rags-to-riches success, which he achieved “by dint of hard work, privations, and inflexible determination” (72).

Like any encyclopedia, these volumes are not meant to be read from cover to cover, but perusing them is interesting, especially if one is looking for background on a particular individual and wants to know how the man was viewed in his time and not as history has treated him.  In this light, the biography of Chauncy Depew is particularly interesting. It’s a good bet that virtually no American today would recognize the name Chauncy Depew. And yet, in 1900 he is described as the best-known man in New York--indeed, in America! It just goes to show that fame is indeed fleeting.

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