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Moses H. Grinnell (1802-1877)

“In speaking of such a large-hearted man as Moses H. Grinnell, I could not be brief. That gentleman’s influence, always bright and genial, was seen and felt throughout the city for nearly half a century,” wrote Republican editor Thurlow Weed. “Of his intelligence, enterprise, and integrity as a merchant nothing need be said, for these elements of character stand out conspicuously. His liberality and enthusiasm in all good works, in all generous enterprises, and in all patriotic movements, inspired the sympathy and cooperation of others. There was irresistible magnetism in his voice and manner.”1
“Moses [Grinnell] has been successful merchant, and generous with his money in a certain way. He has some good and some weak qualities in his profession, but his great failing has been in political aspirations. With commercial party principles, no sound or correct knowledge of government, or of individual rights, he has hungered for office and believed that money ought to secure it. He has seen with envy the success of [Edwin D.] Morgan and some others, whom he believes no more capable or deserving than himself, and had hoped the change of administration would bring him into distinction,” wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who usually found himself in disagreement with Thurlow Weed.2
When President-elect Lincoln visited New York City on his way to Washington in February 1860, he breakfasted at the home of Moses Grinnell’s daughter — along with many of New York City’s most prominent businessmen. Grinnell subsequently wrote President Lincoln with introductions for others, but few letters of advice survive. But Secretary Welles observed that Grinnell was free with advice: “On several occasions since I have had the benefit of Mr. G.’s advice and promptings, but am not aware that I was ever benefited by either.”3 Welles subsequently wrote in his diary:
When President Lincoln came to Washington, he was invited to, and did, breakfast with Moses at his house in New York. But these attentions failed to bring the coveted honors. He had been a large shipping merchant and why should he not be Collector or even take charge of the Navy. His friend Seward was in the Cabinet, but from western New York. Moses lived in the city of New York, and was from New England….After the blockade was declared he came twice to Washington and wanted, evidently, to be consulted. On one, and perhaps both occasions, he brought with him C.H. Marshall, an old ship-master, opinionated, conceited, and infinitely worse than Grinnell. I treated them courteously, listened to their opinions, invited them to be communicative, but did not adopt their views. Marshall, however, declared himself well satisfied with what he understood to be the management of the Department, and Grinnell did not dissent. This was, I think, in May, 1861. Some two months, perhaps, later, Moses was again in Washington; wanted the Department to procure more vessels; urged the purchase of a fleet of merchant ships on which there might be placed a small armament to establish an efficient blockade. I gave but little attention to his advice or offers of service. Two good steamers in my opinion would be more effective than the sixty sailing vessels which he proposed to purchase. By the kindness of Mr. Seward he had an interview with the President and laid before him his plans. Charleston he would blockade with ten or a dozen ships lying off outside. I happened to enter the President’s room about the time Grinnell was leaving, and he spoke quite oracularly about the ‘swash channel’; repeated that expression several times. He knew the harbor and the ‘swash channel.’ Could blockade it with ten or a dozen good ships. The President subsequently informed me of the plan of Mr. Grinnell, in the presence of the Secretary of State, and each of them kindly commended him. I told them I knew Mr. Grinnell well, but that my views did not correspond with his, and my arrangements were not such as would admit of employing him.4
Grinnell dabbled rather unsuccessfully in politics. He was a Democrat who became a Whig in the 1830s and then a Republican in the mid-1850s. His sole elected experience was a single term in Congress from 1839 to 1841 — leaving two years before his brother, Joseph Grinnell, entered Congress to represent Massachusetts for four terms. Moses’s primary focus, however, was his business career — which he began in New York at age 15. He became a business leader — serving as president of the Chamber of Commerce of New York. There scarcely seemed to be a Republican or civic enterprise in which Grinnell did not participate in mid-19th Century New York.
Grinnell’s business activities, however, limited his political ambitions. Grinnell was in the shipping business with his younger brother Henry and Robert B. Minturn, who like Grinnell was a founder of New York’s Union League Club. Grinnell would have run for Governor in 1856 had not Minturn insisted that Grinnell’s attention to their business was essential. In 1860, Grinnell took an active role in rallying normally pro-Democratic New York businessmen behind the Republican ticket. Grinnell served on the Union Defense Committee that organized in April 1861 and when John A. Dix was commissioned an Army general, Grinnell took over leadership of the recruiting organization. Grinnell also was as a leader of the National Conference Committee of the Union Lincoln Association and a founder of the Union League in New York.
Grinnell’s sole office during the war had been as a New York City commissioner of charities and corrections. According to Thurlow Weed, “All hearts and all purses responded to his appeals, — appeals only made when he had first contributed largely. Though devoting much time to public enterprises, to political duties, to social life, and to healthful relaxations, his business was never neglected. He was a thorough merchant, to be found always during business hours where business called him.”5
Grinnell also concerned himself with promoting the patronage interests of others — particularly the candidacy of Simeon Draper to be Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. Presidential aide John G. Nicolay called Grinnell “Draper’s bosom friend”.6 Grinnell made several entreaties on behalf of Draper’s appointment during 1864 — leading to Dix’s appointment as Collector of Customs in September. Grinnell himself did not receive a patronage reward until 1869 when Grinnell was appointed Collector of Customs by President Ulysses S. Grant — beating out New York newspaperman Charles A. Dana for the post. Although angered at the slight, Dana’s newspaper commented: “With [Grinnell’s] well-known energy, integrity, and business capacity in the control of that establishment we may expect soon to see its abuses mercilessly corrected, its expenses reduced, its stealings stopped, and its returns to the treasury largely increased.”7 Dana’s friend, General James Harrison Wilson, described Grinnell as “a gentleman of much less consideration.”8
Grinnell’s social, literary and political connections were extensive. According to friend Thurlow Weed, Grinnell was influential in getting writer Washington Irving appointed Minister to Madrid by President Zachary Taylor. “He was such a large-hearted that he desired to make everybody happy; he was generous to the last degree. Unlike many men situated in life as he was, he did not contribute to hospital or asylum funds at stated intervals only, but gave in charity every day. In fact he was always giving either money or assistance of others kinds to the needy,” wrote Weed.9 Grinnell was “very much attached to the persons connected with him in business as employees. He looked after their interests carefully and whenever one of them died he cared for his family like a father. He was interested in the Children’s Aid Society and the industrial schools of this city,” wrote Weed.10 “Mr. Minturn was like him in this respect, — indeed, no better man ever lived in New York than Robert B. Minturn.”11


  1. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 625.
  2. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 513 (January 22, 1864).
  3. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 513-514 (January 22, 1864).
  4. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 513-514 (January 22, 1864).
  5. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 625.
  6. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John G. Nicolay to Abraham Lincoln, August 29, 1864)..
  7. Janet E. Steele, The Sun Shines for All: Journalism and Ideology in the Life of Charles A. Dana, p. 91.
  8. Harry J. Maihafer, The General and the Journalists: Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley,a nd Charles Dana, p. 231.
  9. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 627.
  10. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 628.
  11. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 627.