Short-Term Research Fellows: A Closer Look at Brooklyn History
As a graduate student whose dissertation examines the development of Brooklyn in the nineteenth century, I have spent more hours than I care to count the past several years poring through documents in the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library and other repositories in what was formerly the nation's third-largest city and is now New York City's most populous borough. Recently however, through the New York Public Library's Short-Term Research Fellowship Program and assistance from staff in its Manuscripts and Archives Division, I was able to research in Manhattan, examining NYPL's substantial archival collections relating to Brooklyn during the period it was an independent city.
During my residency at the Library, I was able to find many interesting and relevant documents, ranging from the diaries and personal papers of prominent Brooklynites of the nineteenth century such as Hezekiah Pierrepont and Gordon Lester Ford to books dating from the 1850s that ranked the relative wealth of residents of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh.
Perhaps the most fascinating material I worked with came from the Levi Parsons Morton papers. Morton served as vice-president of the United States under Benjamin Harrison and was New York's governor when Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and the eastern part of the Bronx consolidated to form the New York metropolitan area. The consolidation of Greater New York marked an end to political struggles that begun in earnest with a political referendum on consolidation among all proposed boroughs. While consolidation had passed everywhere, it only squeaked by in Brooklyn with a margin of just 277 votes. This narrow margin provoked an almost immediate backlash in Brooklyn, as many leading citizens accused consolidationists of voter fraud and demanded resubmission of the entire issue to the public before consolidation went forward. Reading letters Morton received from anti-consolidationists in the months before he signed the "Greater New York" bill on May 11, 1896 provides valuable insight into what Brooklynites thought of their city as the nineteenth century closed.
The League of Loyal Citizens and the Anti-Consolidationist Argument
Perhaps the most effective opposition to the consolidation movement came from the Loyal Citizens League of Brooklyn, bankrolled by William Cox Redfield a wealthy Brooklyn Heights manufacturer. Redfield recruited some of the most well-known names in Brooklyn high society as well as its religious leaders to support his efforts, including Abbot Augustus Low, Henry E. Pierrepont II, and the Reverends Theodore Cuyler and Richard Salter Storrs. Redfield himself is represented several times in Morton's correspondence, with his most straightforward letter dated January 7, 1896, just four months before the Governer would sign the "Greater New York" bill.
In the January 7 letter, forwarded to Morton by Brooklyn mayor Frederick Wurster, Redfield lays bare the key fear of many Brooklyn anti-consolidationists. In the letter, Redfield challenges the notion that a better, more efficient system of government would result from consolidation. Redfield asks "Would we not, in all fairness, simply be putting ourselves into the power of a city whose people have governed themselves very, very ill?" Redfield went on "consolidation adds greater governmental burdens, greater opportunity for pilfering and wrong, and means a distinct step backward in political methods... Consolidation for Brooklyn is not progress, but suicide." He voiced the fear that Brooklyn's school system, which had one of the strongest reputations in the United States, would be tarnished by association with New York. As Redfield wrote, "In matters educational, Brooklyn is to light as New York is to dark."
Brooklynites had always prided themselves that, though they had suffered from the evils of political machines and corruption, the corruption in the "city of churches" had never reached the level Brooklyn's silk-stocking gentry perceived in Manhattan. Even Redfield, one of the few Democrats among the city's upper-class feared and dreaded the influence of Tammany Hall upon politics in Brooklyn. Moreover, the vitality of Brooklyn institutions such as the city's school system was a point of pride for all Brooklynites.
Fear was reflected in the political establishment of Brooklyn as well. Mayor Frederick Wurster emerged as a key supporter of the anti-consolidationists' efforts to earn a "resubmission" of the Greater New York bill to a public referendum. Wurster, along with his Manhattan counterpart William Strong vetoed the bill in April 1896, hoping to delay Morton's action on the bill. In his veto message Wurster insisted that consolidation was "not essential to Brooklyn's well-being." In a confidential letter to Morton prior to his veto, Wurster himself voiced the frustration elite Brooklynites had with the prospect of consolidation. Like Redfield, Wurster warned Morton of the dangers of surrendering power of a Republican stronghold to Tammany Hall. "Let Brooklyn be lost to Tammany and the latter... will not only bury the State in debt, but loot these two cities — then one — to their hearts' content."
Wurster also gave voice to a darker fear — that the "foreign element" of New York City would overwhelm the forces of "good government" that Brooklyn "a largely New England and American city" represented. According to Wurster, the pure American values that Brooklyn represented was "the most conservative force in the government of the whole State," and putting the city into Tammany's hands would destroy it. This was perhaps an odd statement for Wurster, who was himself of German descent, to make, but it represented a key component to the thought of many Brooklyn anti-consolidationists. The fear of "foreign" Manhattan disturbed the social elites of Brooklyn Heights, even as their own city was becoming increasingly diverse. The anti-ethnic argument that Wurster put forward ultimately did little to endear the anti-consolidationists to the city's growing Eastern and Southern European and Irish contingent.
Nonetheless, the arguments put forward by Wurster, Redfield and others worried Morton enough that he appealed to General Benjamin Tracy, one of the most important national figures based in Brooklyn, to determine if consolidation would truly harm the Republican party there. Assurances from both Tracy and Morton's political mentor Thomas Collier Platt (who desired consolidation to cement his own hold on the state Republican party) eased Morton's worries. He signed the bill into law on May 11, 1896, effectively ending the debate and crushing the hopes of Brooklyn's anti-consolidationists.
At a dinner of the New York Chamber of Commerce on December 31, 1897, St. Clair McKelway, the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and long an important voice against consolidation, said goodbye to his city. "Farewell to the city of Brooklyn.... Much has long made Brooklyn Great. Brooklyn shall long make New York Greater." The story of the fight against consolidation will form a major part of my dissertation, as it reveals much about how Brooklynites saw their city. The social elites and upper classes that oversaw the city's development over the course of the nineteenth century had, like most residents of Brooklyn I know today, a tremendous pride in and a fierce protectiveness of Brooklyn. Yet, their vision of the city proved limited and did not reflect the lived experiences of the city for hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. Their failure to accomodate these perspectives ultimately doomed hopes to prevent integration of their city into Greater New York.
Ultimately, my research in the Manuscripts and Archives Division proved even more fruitful than I could have hoped for my dissertation. For those Manhattanites (or any New Yorkers, in location or spirit) curious about the "other side" of the East River and the history of the borough of Kings, I encourage you to make your own trip to the New York Public Library. Just be sure to bring a magnifying glass and prepare yourself for lots of difficult to read nineteenth-century handwriting!