Dean Richmond, like many Republican and Democratic politics leaders, combined business and politicans. Richmond “was one of those original men of great brain-power, force, and character, knowledge of men, and executive ability, of which that period had a number,” wrote New York Republican Chauncey M. Depew, who followed Richmond into the railroad business. “From the humblest beginning he had worked his way in politics to the leadership of his party, to the president of the greatest corporation in the State, the New York Central Railroad Company, and in his many and successful adventures had accumulated a fortune. His foresight was almost a gift of prophecy, and his judgment was rarely wrong. He believed that the disasters in the field and the bad times at home could be charged up to the Lincoln administration and lead to a Democratic victory. He also believed that there was only one man in the party whose leadership would surely win, and that man was Horatio Seymour.”1
Richmond knew when to leave politics at the railroad’s station. In the l860 legislative session, for example, he teamed up with Repubican Thurlow Weed to defeat an effort to place tolls on the state’s railroads. As President-elect Lincoln crossed New York on his way to Washington in February 1861, he rode along Richmond’s railroad pulled by a locomotive named for the Democratic leader. New York Central Vice President Richmond himself boarded the train at Syracuse with lunch for the Lincoln family. “The secret of his power, next to his intuitive knowledge, consists in his prominent disinterestedness,” wrote Weed in 1860. In his years of political leadership, wrote Weed, Richmond “has neither asked nor accepted anything in return. Such patriotism, coupled with the almost unerring wisdom of his counsels, given him great, controlling, and permanent power.”2
Historian George Milton Fort wrote: “Richmond, one of ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt’s ablest lieutenants, had a large part in putting together the various short railroad lines of western New York to make the New York Central system — serving as president of that organization. This experience led him to apply a similar technique to Democratic politics. Richmond [in 1860] took the lead for Douglas; Seymour followed him, and respected his organizing skill and power drive. To [Samuel] Tilden he turned for the development of ideas and the formation of policies growing out of them.”3 They devised strategy for the Democratic National Convention in April.
According to Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell, “It was said that Richmond’s plan of action at Charleston was to vote the delegation for Senator Douglas until the latter withdrew and then nominate [Horatio] Seymour with the aid of the South and the consent of the North West. By the spring of 1860 the New York Herald thought that the nomination of a New Yorker was extremely unlikely because the Democrats felt that they could never carry the state in November.”4 Mitchell wrote that “This business man from Buffalo was not a bad judge of men. When Ben Butler of Massachusetts submitted his scheme for compromise at Charleston by asking Richmond if it were not ‘an honest and fair proposition,’ the chairman of the New York delegation replied that he had never in all his life seen but three men with casts in their eyes who could be trusted — and Butler was one.”5 Mitchell wrote:
It is not altogether unfair to lay the blame for the breaking up of the Charleston convention on Dean Richmond and the New York delegation. In all close votes an apparent contradiction of practice became evident, for the states could impose the unit rule or not as they pleased. When important matters like the two-thirds rule and the platform were settled by a majority vote, it was obvious that partial use of the unit rule might easily enable a smaller part of the convention to dominate the larger. The state convention had directed that the delegation which was seated should vote as a unit; but for that fact the minority in that delegation of ‘Softs’ could have saved the platform which the South demanded. Only Clancy, Savage and Belmont of the city followed the lead of Douglas men from upstate. Thus twenty votes controlled the other fifteen. Had New York divided her vote in proportion to the opinions of her representatives and let the South have its platform, the convention might never have dissolved.
The vote of New York was decisive a second time. The South contended that the nominee must receive two-thirds of the whole number of delegates — not merely of those voting. In this contention it was supported by New York, which hoped to avoid the withdrawal of the slave states. Richmond’s strategy in these two important contests seems to show that he hoped to nominate Seymour in the end, whatever the latter might think.6
There may have been a political opening for Seymour, however, which Richmond did not seize. According to Sidney David Brummer, Congressman “John Cochrane years afterwards wrote that just before the reassembling of the convention at Baltimore. Slidell, ‘assuming and unquestionably empowered with authority,’ offered to Dean Richmond and to Cochrane the united support of the Southerners, including the delegates who had seceded, for Seymour’s nomination, provided the New York delegation voted for him; Richmond, however, after conferences declined the offer because of his inability to carry with him his friends in the delegation. There is no necessary inconsistency between these two statements. Richmond perhaps was ready for a coup; but in the delegation there were not only staunch Douglas men, like Church, but also Dickinson men who probably could not have been brought to Seymour’s support; as for the others, it was not apparent that Douglas men from other states could have been induced, in sufficient numbers, to transfer their votes to Seymour.”7 Historian Brummer wrote that “Richmond, like Thurlow Weed, had had no educational advantage in early life and was self-made. He, too, was a shrewd, practical politician, who refused office and never spoke in public. Indeed, he was said to have been unable to express himself grammatically in private conversation. More than one noted his liberal use of profanity.”8
Richmond served as longtime chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee and in 1860 was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In both positions, he supported the nomination of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Richmond opponents like former Senator Democrat Daniel S. Dickinson blamed Richmond’s leadership for the breakup of the Democratic Convention in Charleston in April, 1860. Dickinson, a supporter of Kentuckian John Breckinridge, wrote that “political gamblers — cheating the sentiment of the people of the State and Nation…cheating the Convention …cheating the delegates who trust them; cheating everyone, except Mr. Douglas, their nominee…Political gamblers! You have breathed your contagion throughout the Democratic citadel…Its towering eagle of liberty has fled for a brief season…You have perpetrated your last cheat…Henceforth you will be held and treated as political outlaws…”9
Richmond’s job was a very difficult juggling act in 1861 as the party sought to handle secession and Civil War. “Dean Richmond bore the weight of such party suspicions. Wavering erratically as he sought to master the rising peace movement within the Democracy, he rejected Republican suggestions for a joint prowar ticket, although he did leave the door open for future negotiations. Tammany backed him. Democratic policy, the Leader stated, ‘must deny the right of Secession, but…allow no infraction of the Constitutional liberties guaranteed to every state and section,” wrote historian Jerome Mushkat.10
Richmond’s skills were put to an even greater test in 1862 when he maneuvered political events to give Horatio Seymour the gubernatorial nomination of first the old-line Whigs and then the next day the support of the Democrats. Seymour was a reluctant candidate — having visited Richmond in Buffalo in August to argue against his candidacy. According to Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell, ‘Richmond had so managed affairs as to give the Democrats the appearance and advantage of rising above partisanship to accept a nomination made by old Whigs. Seymour himself was present as a delegate at Albany, earnestly supporting the naming of [Sanford] Church, but Richmond insisted on his own choice as the strongest of all possible candidates. Although some historians have refused to pin the label of ‘War Democrat’ on any but men who became Republicans in fact, the good generalship in the choosing of Seymour in 1862 can not be successfully denied.”11 Mitchell wrote: “The Democratic platform as prepared by Dean Richmond at Albany on September 10 contained a definite bid for the support of conservative opinion by declaring against all proposals for emancipation of slaves and urging the government ‘to use all legitimate means to suppress rebellion, restore the Union as it was, and maintain the Constitution as it is. ‘The Union as it was, and the Constitution as it is’ became the campaign slogan of the jubilant Democrats.”12
Richmond’s political leadership was sometimes undermined by his business interests — which in turn undermined the 1864 re-election campaign of Governor Horatio Seymour. According to Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell, Richmond was an opponent, not a lieutenant of [Cornelius] Vanderbilt. “On April 21, 1863, Commodore Vanderbilt persuaded the common council of the city to grant him the right to extend the Harlem Railroad, which he controlled, from Fourth Avenue down Manhattan Island to the Battery by a traction line on Broadway. His angry rivals at Tammany Hall determined to get a franchise from the superior power of the state, according to which they could lay their own tracks on Broadway or compel Vanderbilt to buy them out. Dean Richmond and Peter Cagger, two of the most powerful men in the councils of the Democratic party of the state, had long been bitter rivals of Vanderbilt in the business of handling the freight which went up and down the Hudson Valley. Naturally enough, Richmond and Cagger were pleased to make trouble for Vanderbilt by helping [Tweed associate Peter B.] Sweeney to push his franchise through the legislature.” Added Mitchell: “Thus Governor Seymour was confronted with another difficult and delicate problem. Richmond was state chairman of his party, and Vanderbilt was the rival of his friends. The city had granted one franchise, and the state had granted another.”13 Seymour ruled in Vanderbilt’s favor — alienating Tammany Hall.
But in 1864, Richmond’s political touch was not as deft. Historian Sidney David Brummer wrote that Richmond bore responsibility for the amalgamation of pro-war presidential candidate George B. McClellan with anti-war candidate George Pendleton, an Ohio Congressman, on the Democratic ticket. ‘Since it does not appear that Dean Richmond or his representatives made any fight outside of the committee against the platform or against the nomination of Pendleton, it can scarcely be claimed that the New York leader exhibited on this occasion any great political sagacity.”14 A few weeks later, Richmond’s plans to field a new candidate to succeed Governor Horatio Seymour were derailed by a runaway convention that drafted Seymour to run again — and lose.
After the Democratic ticket’s defeat in 1864, Richmond had one last poignant connection with President Lincoln. When the murdered President’s funeral train traveled from Albany to Buffalo along the New York Central railroad lines, it was pulled by a locomotive named the “Dean Richmond.” Richmond himself pushed out Erastus Corning as president of the New York Central early in 1865. Richmond held that post only until August 1866 when he died at the home of future New York State Governor Samuel J. Tilden. Once again, the New York Central’s locomotives were draped in crepe.
- Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 22-23.
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 25 (Albany Evening Journal, June 20, 1860).
- George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, p. 115.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 209.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 210.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 212.
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 57-58.
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 25.
- Marjory B. Hinman, Daniel S. Dickinson: Defender of the Constitution, p. 162.
- Jerome Mushkat, Tammany: The Evolution of a Political Machine, 1789-1865, p. 330.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 245.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 247-248.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 287.
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 406.