Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich

1841-1915; Republican, Rhode Island

In 1866, a young Rhode Island grocery clerk named Nelson Aldrich confided his life’s ambition in a letter to his fiancé. “Willingly or forcibly wrested from a selfish world,” he vowed, “Success (counted as the mass counts it by dollars and cents) shall be mine.”

A career in the grocery trade would have been the easiest path to wealth, but business bored Aldrich. He chose politics instead. Though he was a poor public speaker and an indifferent campaigner, he proved adept at backroom dealing. Recognizing his potential, the boss of the state’s Republican machine promoted him up the party hierarchy and engineered his Senate election in 1880.

In the Senate Finance Committee, Aldrich pulled strings for industrialists like H. O. Havermeyer, president of the Sugar Trust, and J. Pierpont Morgan, America’s foremost investment banker. In return, the businessmen backed Aldrich’s investment schemes. He became a multimillionaire and built the finest mansion in Rhode Island. His daughter marred John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the richest man in the world.

Wealth was not Aldrich’s only ambition. In the 1890s, he and three allies seized control of the Senate’s major committees. With Aldrich acting as ringleader, the “Big Four” senators ruled Congress for a decade. Journalists dubbed him “Boss of the Senate” and “General Manager of the United States.” Even President Theodore Roosevelt, aware that he could pass no legislation without the Big Four, deferred to Aldrich.

But times were changing. Voters resented extreme wealth inequality and corporate political power. Roosevelt, in his second term, vowed to pass reform legislation that Aldrich had suppressed or diluted. In the west, a progressive Republican insurgency led by Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin campaigned against Aldrich's conservative establishment.

When Roosevelt’s successor, President William Taft, fell under Aldrich’s spell, public fury exploded, and the Republican Party erupted in civil war. The ensuing conflict permanently realigned American politics and established some of the country’s most important and controversial institutions, including corporate taxes, income taxes, and the Federal Reserve—all of which were unintentionally fathered by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island.

 Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, 1902

Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, 1902

 The Big Four at Aldrich's estate, 1903

The Big Four at Aldrich's estate, 1903

 La Follette and Aldrich face off, 1910

La Follette and Aldrich face off, 1910

More Aldrich photographs and cartoons