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George Opdyke (1805-1880)

George Opdyke was a fighter. That quality had served him well in careers in retailing, manufacturing and banking and worked in Ohio, Louisiana and New Jersey. He "had risen from a journeyman tailor in New Orleans to be one of New York's wealthy merchants. He had served in the legislature, where he had shown a knowledge of commerce and finance, and in 1859 had been the Republican candidate for mayor. He was a radical and a leader of the anti-Weed faction of his party," wrote historian Sidney David Brummer.1 He was also a self-styled economist who authored a Treatise on Political Economy in 1851 in favor of free trade, free labor and inconvertible paper money.

Opdyke was as ambitious in politics as business and allied himself with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in his 1860 candidacy and in his abortive 1864 presidential quest. Opdyke himself had previously served in the New York State Legislature. He visited President Lincoln after the Republican National Convention and, according to historian Allan Nevins, wrote a report for the New York Evening Post: "He found Lincoln living in a house that was handsome but not pretentious, its rooms neatly but quietly furnished, and its library holding long rows of books. The candidate received callers with an urbanity which Opdyke found surprising; for if awkward abroad, at home he appeared easy if not graceful, and his conversation was fluent, agreeable, and polite. What was of more importance, his talk reflected an acute, decided, and original mind; he had views of his own, founded in the main on sound common sense, though now and then a strong phrase revealed some original insight."2

Salmon P. Chase relied on Opdyke in early 1861to help advance his aspirations for a Cabinet post after he visited President-elect Lincoln in Springfield in early January. Chase himself went to Illinois in to confer with President Lincoln on January 4 and 5. According to Chase biographer John Niven: "When Lincoln saw Chase off on the train he had made up his mind that it was 'not only highly proper, but a necessity, that Gov. Chase shall take that place [the Treasury].' As for Chase he may have been noncommittal with Lincoln about accepting the Treasury post, but his actions belied his words. While his railroad car moved along between Springfield and Lafayette, Indiana, he scribbled letters to Opdyke and to [Hiram] Barney which a fellow passenger who was getting off at Toledo agreed to mail. In his anxiety to make sure that immediate action was taken and fearful that Opdyke might be out of town, he authorized Barney in that even 'to open Opdyke's letter and read it.' What he wanted was to have his New York friends visit Springfield and impress his availability on Lincoln. 'What is done must be done quickly and done judiciously,' he wrote, 'with the concurrence of our best men and by a deputation to Springfield.'"3 A group including Opdyke and Barney soon left New York for Springfield.

Opdyke, Hiram Barney and John Hogeboom visited President Lincoln on January 16 to give advice on appointments. The meeting was recalled in a conversation between President Lincoln and aide John Hay in October 1863. Hay wrote in his diary: "I said Opdyke was expected here today & told the President the story of [John] Palmer and Opdyke. He went on and gave me the whole history of the visit they made to Springfield Barney Opdyke & Hogeboom — of the appointment of Barney — of the way Opdyke rode him — of his final protest." Hay said to the President: "Opdyke now was determined to have the Custom House cleaned out." The President replied: "He will have a good time doing it."4

Despite Opdyke's support for Chase, Chase did not return the favor when it came to choosing a new Collector of Customs for New York City. Barney was supported by both Chase and President Lincoln although some anti-Weed Republicans such as the Tribune's Horace Greeley preferred Opdyke. "This wealthy, self-assured merchant would have defended the radical cause much more vigorously than Barney," wrote historian John Niven. "But Lincoln had taken the measure of the New York City factions. Opdyke was simply too combative for such a sensitive post."5

In December 1861 Opdyke was very narrowly elected mayor because of a split among Democratic factions. Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote that the New York banker was elected mayor "largely by virtue of the political strength his associates had obtained from the Federal government," primarily in the Customs office.6 According to historian John William Leonard, Opdyke "was, during his administration, especially active in such measures as the municipality could initiate or aid, connected with the furtherance of the Union cause. Private benefactions and efforts continued along the same line. Mrs. Valentine Mott headed an association of ladies which opened, May 2, 1862, a Home for Sick and Wounded Soldiers in the building at Lexington Avenue and Fifty-first Street, which had recently been erected for an Infants' Home, the home giving accommodations for from four to five hundred soldiers. Mount St. Vincent, in Central Park, was another institution of the same kind."7

Opdyke's style clearly irritated Mr. Lincoln, however. In that October 1863, President Lincoln recalled a confrontation with Opdyke. It occurred after the December 1862 meetings in which Republican Senators attempted to get Mr. Lincoln to remove Secretary of State William H. Seward from the Cabinet: "When I had settled this important business at last with much labor & to entire satisfaction, into my room one day walked D.D. Field & George Opdyke and began a new attack upon me to force me to remove Seward. For once in my life I rather gave my temper the rein and I talked to those men pretty damned plainly. Opdyke may be right in being cool to me. I may have given him reason this morning."8 Another Hay diary entry seven weeks earlier reenforced the evidence of Opdyke's irritation: "George Opdyke called to say that though the President had treated him very cavalierly when he last visited him[,] he wanted to thank him for his recent admirable letter to the Springfield Convention."9

Earlier that year, Mayor Opdyke had strongly supported the Lincoln Administration's draft policies in New York City. He played a central role in suppressing the Draft Riots of July 1863 — . He worked with the city police commission and federal government to put down the rebellion and to block any attempt at commutation. The Mayor also blocked bills passed by the City Council which would have exempted City draftees by paying their $330 fee to be exempted from the draft.

The Draft Riots effectively killed any possibility that Opdyke would be reelected in 1863. "Opdyke particularly was looked on as a fool and coward, whose courage returned only with the end of the riot," wrote Leo Hershkowitz in Tweed's New York.10 He was not even renominated. "Mayor Opdyke would not survive in politics, and never again would he ever covet official life," wrote William Alan Bales in Tiger in the Streets.11 That did not mean that Opdyke gave up political activities. Opdyke took a prominent role in seeking President Lincoln's replacement on the 1864 Republican ticket. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "When ex-Mayor George Opdyke of New York signed letters in mid-August [1864] inviting Republican leaders to a meeting to discuss the withdrawal of Lincoln in favor of a stronger candidate, he met a remarkable body of support. This honest but commonplace clothing merchant was of course merely a catspaw. The real movers of whom [Congressman Henry] Winter Davis was the most determined, stood behind him."12 The movement collapsed by the beginning of September.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Republican National Convention in June, a feud had erupted in New York. Several Republican newspapers attacked Albany Evening Journal editor Thurlow Weed. The editor-politician launched a massive assault on his political opponents including Horace Greeley, Isaac Henderson, David Dudley Field and Opdyke. Weed biographer Glyndon van Deusen wrote: "The mayor, Weed averred, had sworn falsely that he had no interest in a gun factory destroyed in the New York draft riots of 1863, then had sat on a committee investigating the claim, and had profited by the ensuing $190,000 indemnity. Opdyke had made more money by secret partnerships in army cloth, blanket, clothing and gun contrasts 'than any fifty sharpers, Jew or Gentile, in the city of New York.' Furthermore, Weed declared that Opdyke, Morris Ketchum and David Dudley Field had forged themselves into the Mariposa Mining Company, a concern organized to put General John C. Frémont's financial affairs in order, and that Opdyke had participated in exactions and extortions levied upon Frémont by this company, which had mulcted the General of no less than $2,600,000."13

Historian Sidney David Brummer wrote that after Weed's initial charges, "There followed open letters from Opdyke, Benjamin F. Camp, and David Dudley Field, showing the extent to which the animosity had grown. Opdyke spoke of Weed as 'a person whom I long since proved to be as reckless of truth as he is bankrupt of character and whose moral sensibilities have become so blunted in the practise of his vocation as lobby chief that he seems to be no longer capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.'"14 The feud generated a lawsuit by Opdyke against Weed. Weed biographer Glyndon van Deusen summarized the trial's conclusion:

The stage was finally set when, on the day before the trial opened, Rufus S. Andrews, lately dismissed as surveyor of the port through Weed's influence, published in the Tribune a letter to Weed that fairly quivered with savage vituperation. Weed was told that he was an unscrupulous old liar." He was dared to deny that he had had a direct pecuniary interest in the gridiron bills of 1860. [Rufus F.] Andrews accused him of betraying Wadsworth in 1862, and of spreading slander about Mrs. Lincoln's 'treasonable' conduct. 'Why don't you emulate the last virtue of Judas Iscariot,' sneered the enraged ex-surveyor, 'and go out and hang yourself?'
Such was the atmosphere in which the trial opened. It was not, as Raymond remarked, a very edifying spectacle to see men who owed whatever prominence they had attained to Weed and his activities, 'elbowing one another in frantic competition for the final stab at his character and career.'

The trial opened in New York Circuit Court on December 13, 1864, before Judge Mason. Both principals were there, Weed's calm, benevolent appearance contrasting sharply with that of the irritable, fussy Opdyke....

For almost a month the opposing counsel badgered a succession of witnesses, wrangled with the Court, and fought with one another. A vast amount of testimony was taken, some of it to the point, most of it characterized by prolixity rather than by relevance to the charges. Then on January 11, after the lawyers for the defense had pointed out how completely Weed's accusations had been substantiated, and the lawyers for the plaintiff had pointed out how libelous had been every charge that he had made, the jury of twelve good men and true agreed to disagree.
The jurors had differed, apparently, as to whether Weed should pay nominal damages of six cents, or be acquitted.15

 

Footnotes

  1. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 176.
  2. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861, Volume II, p. 274.
  3. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 226.
  4. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 104 (October 30, 1863).
  5. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 240.
  6. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 44.
  7. John William Leonard, History of the City of New York, 1609-1909, p. 373.
  8. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 104 (October 30, 1863).
  9. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 81 (September 10, 1863).
  10. Leo Hershkowitz, Tweed’s New York: Another Look, p. 92.
  11. William Alan Bales, Tiger in the Streets: A City in a Time of Trouble, p. 148.
  12. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 91.
  13. Glyndon van Deusen, Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby, p. 313.
  14. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 388.
  15. Glyndon van Deusen, Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby, p. 314-315.

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