A Washington Dinner:
An Appreciation of William Walter Phelps
By Alex Phelps
Biographers make their choices as to what material to present to the reader and the reasons for them are not always clear. When a biography is commissioned, it's assumed that best feet will be vigorously thrust to the fore and any glaring flaws glossed over or blended with the overall picture especially those with a broad audience, enhance any subject. That is why it is all the more surprising that Hugh M. Herrick's biography of William Walter Phelps, William Walter Phelps: His Life and Public Times, commissioned by his daughter Marian following his death in 1894, makes no mention of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), other than to note the instance of an address by the celebrity to Phelps's mission and its guests at the Thanksgiving Day celebration in Berlin, in 1891.
The distinguished author and personality was a visitor on several occasions in the 1870s to the Grange at Teaneck, William Walter's*
(*Author's Note: William Walter Phelps was addressed by his friends and associates in a variety of ways -- "Walter," "William Waler," the New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid simply by his initials "WWP," the historian Henry Adams, "Willy-Wally," even; in the newspapers he was "William Walter Phelps." I have always thought of him idiosyncratically as "William Walter.") New Jersey home. In Berlin, during William Walter's term as Minister(ambassador) in the early 1890s, Clemens was a frequent visitor to the legation and their families socialized together. In a letter to Mrs. Crane, Mrs. Clemens' sister, in 1892, he wrote from Lucerne, Switzerland, "...The Phelpses came to Frankfort and we had some great times--dinner at his hotel, the Masons, supper at our inn..." And William Walter's papers at the Huntinton Library include several letters from the author, who writes a humorous sketch of a dinner at the Berlin legation in his autobiography. Who can say why Herrick made no mention of any of this? Perhaps Mr. Clemens' humor was not to the liking of some of Mr. Phelps's survising family. Herrick, however, does not overlook William Walter's sociable nature.
When men of wealth belonged to clubs as a way of life, they were, if known for their hospitality, described as 'clubbable.' William Walter was one who deserved the epithet. He was a generous host at Teaneck, his New York City home on Madison Avenue and his Washington D. C. house at Dupont Circle. When he sold another house at Dupont Circle to his friend James G. Blaine, a proviso was that the buyer incorporate "a commodious dining-room" for guests.
William Walter's genial nature expressed itself in a tolerance for those with differing views. As a politician he cultivated a broad spectrum of opinion, as the list of dinner guests in the following account demonstrates. Indeed, he seems to have been less concerned with dissuading others of their views than bringing them together in ways that might offer opportunities for consensus. His diplomacy was evident at all levels of life - in the House, as a Minister, and in relations with friends and relatives.
Though a loyal Republican on most issues, he was not afraid to oppose his party on the grounds of principle. In his first congressional term he voted against the "salary grab," a scheme to back-pay congressional salaries, and spoke against the abuses of the franking privilege. His lone party vote against the Republican-sponsored Civil Rights bill of 1874, on the grounds that it lacked constitutionality and ran counter to his opposition to legislating human behavior, put him out of office in the next elections. Through ratified in 1875, the act is rejected by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional, serving to confirming his view. Again, in 1884, he spoke cogently in favor of a bill to exonerate a Union general and constituent, Fitz-John Porter. The general had been cashiered for dereliction of duty during the war and then exonerated by a board of enquiry in Hayes' administration, but this had never formally been recognized by Congress. Republicans, scapegoating the general, had exploited the issue to score off the Democrats and were loath to pass the bill. When William Walter spoke on its behalf in a strong speech that attracted the press, he was lambasted by his own party and cheered by the Democrats. The bill passed. In another strong performance in 1886, he spoke out against the US failure to uphold its agreement in indemnity payments with China. Attacked by a mob in Wyoming when they refused to join a strike, the Chinese had suffered twenty-eight dead and fifteen wounded. In taking this stand William Walter clashed with his political mentor and friend, James G. Blaine, whose sentiments were anti-Chinese. The associated bill passed.
While politics may make enemies amongst paticipants, little evidence exists that any were so aggrieved by William Walter, other than in the customary cut and thrust of the public arena. If anything was untoward about his public figure it was perhaps an element of the absurd. Combined with compensating qualities of powerful natural ability, he presented a paradox.
His self-confident, even dandyish, figure was noted for the plain gray $25 suits he perennially were accompanied by a crimson red necktie, his favority color. He suffered early on from poor eyesight and was cross-eyed. His hair was combed in a bang to hide a receding hairline and the press noted a shiny bald spot on the crown. Possessed of a soft voice, his delivery was smooth and his manner of argument persuasive. His detractors accused him of effeminacy, whereas his admirers noted his tact and perceptiveness. Speaking of William Walter's mooted vice-presidency during the Republican nominating convention of the 1888 elections, "Jim" Belford, from Colorado, "the red-headed rooster of the Rockies," declared, "no man can run the Republican party who bangs his hair." John Milton Hay, diplomat, stateman, and man of letters, writing to Whitelaw Reid of the New York Herald Tribune, his editor in the instance, following a visit to Teaneck, wrote, "I never had really talked with Walter Phelps before, and I should not have felt like leaving the world without meeting so original and lovable a character. He is charming -mind and heart both - one of the fellows that out to live forever to help sweeten a brackish world."
The vanity that provoked his hairstyle was perhaps most evident in his marital plans for his daughter, Marian. It was she in whom he saw a dynastic future for the family, rather than his two older sons, John Jay II and Sheffield. This, despite appointing the former to manage the family's finances following his death. A Germanophile from his student days when he first visited the country, he greatly admired the race for their indestry and intellectual ability. It was his belief that a marriage between a noble-born German and his daughter, who had, it was assumed, inherited all the singular traits of American know-how, would produce an able standard-bearer to continue the family's traditions. In this assessment he reflected the Darwinian social-engineering preoccupations consistent with his class. To this end he took her to Berlin during his posting as Minister. Unblessed with looks and wit and tending to plumpness, Marian was first and formost a dutiful daughter. Despite the legation's hospitality, a string of well-heeling potential suitors declined to take the bait, until the process became a subject of mirth at the German court and was reported in the yellow journalism of the American press. At last, Franz von Rottenburg, a widower twice her age with two children, proposed and was accepted. Von Rottenburg, then in the government, had been a close aide to Chancellor Bismarck and chief of the Imperial Chancellery. Bismarck's son, Count Herbert, had been William Walter's first choice for his daughter.
William Walter's political career did not commence until after his father John Jay's death in 1869. Before that and following his graduation from Columbia in 1863, he practiced corporate law out of his own office in the city. Among many clients he was counsel for the United States Trust Company, Morris, Ketchum &Co., the government bankers who failed during the Civil War, and William E. Dodge of the Phelps Dodge Mining Company, whose son Reverend David Stuart Dodge married his sister, Ellen Ada. On the death of his father, he inherited the bulk of his large estate and retired from his practice to manage it. Until that moment, he had lived in the city with his wife, Ellen Maria (Sheffield) and three children. Since 1865, he had been buying land in Bergen County and, with his father's passing, he moved to Teaneck. Thus it was that he came to represent the New Jersey Fifth District as a Republican representative in 1873 in the Forty-third congress.
In contemplating William Walter's political career questions arise as to the nature and extent of his ambitions. To assess these it may be useful to discuss the manner in which aspirants ran for office in those times. Campaigning, then, was a dance of a different sort than it is today, and we would probably draw different inferences from it.
Typically, political districts discussed potential candidates in meetings of local organizations. A candidate having been decided on, a discreet query was made as to their availability. Once a candidate had indicated a willingness to run, the local party managers organized support. The individual would then be openly called upon to run for office and, following expressions of reluctance, would graciously accept the party’s favor. Following a speech duly noted in the papers, the candidacy was a fait accompli. This tradition of noblesse oblige, whether feigned or real, persisted until Benjamin Harrison broke with it in his presidential campaign in 1888. Making himself available at his home to all who came, he addressed the issues of the day, propounding his political views. James A. Garfield had adopted a similar practice during his presidential run, but had confined his expressions to those of national sentiment.
In respect of William Walter’s political career there is report that he initially favored the Democrats. The local party machine, however, considered him too effete for the ticket. When the local Republicans, impressed with his wealth and manners, sounded him out, he accepted.
William Walter’s politics were moderate as applied to the day. The Republican party, but a few years in existence, was rift by the rampant corruption that accompanied Grant’s terms in office. A reforming wing of the party was led by the charismatic James G. Blaine, a representative from Maine and notable house speaker. During his first term William Walter made fast friends with him. Throughout his career Blaine was a perennial party favorite, receiving the presidential nomination twice. Tainted with charges of taking railroad commissions, he lost his first bid in 1876. The second in 1884 also fell victim to charges of corrupt associations. Despite this, William Walter remained an ardent supporter and his fate would be closely linked with the older man.
William Walter supported a protective tariff and was an advocate of sound money, two policies closely associated with the Republicans. Not for him free trade and an endless supply of unsupported printed money, two of the frequent persuasions of the Democrats. Though his was the party of Reconstruction and he was appointed to a commission to resolve a political impasse in the government of New Orleans in 1874, he was against the policy. Attracting attention as an able speaker and strong advocate for his principles, he was appointed to the Banking and Currency committee, where he spoke in favor of introducing the gold standard. He was mooted as an Assistant Secretary of State, even the secretaryship itself, but declined, as he had earlier refused a judgeship, fearing it would be a dead-end to his career and finding himself out of step with the administration.
Outside the political theatre, there occurred in this period a misfortune that would have a critical, perhaps crucial, effect on William Walter’s career. In the run up to the elections before his first term in office, while at a hotel in Baltimore, he contracted typhoid fever. His health, never robust, was chronically impaired as a result, and frequent bouts of fatigue were claimed as a reason for his periodic withdrawal from the public arena.
Out of office following the elections of 1876, William Walter busied himself with his estate at Teaneck. There, it was noted, he took great interest in landscaping the 2,000 or so acres, having 600,000 trees planted and eight miles of macadam laid. A railroad, in which no doubt he had an interest, intersected the property, having two stations on it. Herrick’s biography notes the comfort he took in walking about his land with his daughter Marian, pointing to the special relationship the pair developed.
Ellen Maria, William Walter’s wife, was a domineering woman, one of a family that included a number of strong-willed female offspring. Their father, Joseph Earl Sheffield, came from a seafaring family in Connecticut and made his money as a cotton broker. Later, a railroad financier, he retired to devote his life philanthropically to the development of the Sheffield Scientific School of Engineering at Yale. Ellen ran the household with a tight fist and there is the sense of a distinct contrast in the couple’s temperaments – hers brash and imperious, his gentler and more inclined to sympathy. An anecdote has it that some years after William Walter’s death a New York bank, in which Ellen was a principal stockholder, sent an employee of the bank to inform her that her account was overdrawn. Writing a check, she instructed the bank to fire the messenger for his impertinence. In contrast, hearing, while traveling in Europe following Garfield’s successful presidential run in 1880, of the failure of the Bergen Savings Bank of Hackensack, NJ, because of a cashier’s embezzlement, William Walter, under no obligation except that which he morally assumed towards alleviating the misery of small depositors, instructed his office to pay all accounts under $100 out of his own money.
In respect of William Walter’s generous instincts it may be noted that he mentored the political radical and investor in pneumatic mail-tubes, John Milholland. The teenaged John had moved to Paterson, NJ, with his father in 1871, and his keen intellect attracted his future patron. William Walter paid for his tuition to New York University and helped him to buy the Ticonderoga Sentinel, a Republican paper. Other friends of William Walter, Whitelaw Reid, editor and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, and John Wanamaker, the department store magnate, would promote Milholland’s business ambitions.
In 1880, William Walter campaigned for James Garfield, another close friend. In consequence, he was appointed to his first diplomatic post, Minister to Austro-Hungary at Vienna. When Garfield was assassinated, he returned and, pressed by his district, ran successfully for a second congressional term. Whether truly fatigued or affecting reluctance, he would only accede to the entreaties on a promise that the party conduct the day to day running of the campaign without him.
In the hot fought elections of 1884 William Walter campaigned vigorously for Blaine. It is said that had Blaine prevailed he would have made his supporter Secretary of State.
During his three consecutive and final congressional terms, William Walter sat on the Foreign Affairs, Civil Service and Tenth Census committees, as well as a select committee to investigate ordinance and naval shipbuilding, which received considerable impetus under the Secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney. He introduced a bill providing for a civil government in Alaska and education for native children; supported a bill to pay indemnities to the French for damages incurred during the Revolution; supported a labor arbitration bill designed to resolve employer/employee disputes; presented a joint resolution to support exhibitors at the Exposition in Antwerp, Belgium, and spoke on behalf of a similar appropriation for a centenary exhibition at Melbourne, Australia – in opposition to his party and on behalf of the Democrats; supported liberal appropriations for American mail ships and the Post Office; and, supported Blaine’s initiatives as Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison in promoting trade with Mexico and South America. The latter demonstrates his constant advocacy for overseas trade subsidies. He was a firm believer that such money spent would reap returns many times greater.
The issue of the tariff, the excise duty on overseas goods to protect home industries, dominated these years in politics. The Republicans, protectionists, favored a high tariff; Democrats, free traders, a low tariff or none at all. William Walter followed his party’s line, while striving to break down European tariffs on American imported goods. Later, as Minister to Germany, he was instrumental in persuading the Germans to open their markets to American pork, though political machinations at home prevented him from receiving due credit.
Another issue that raised fevers in Congress was that of US fishing rights in respect of Canadian waters. Both parties exploited the issue, offering competing bills that did little to pour oil on the troubled political waters. William Walter stood ably to the fore, lending his oratorical skills to the debate.
During the congressional session following Grover Cleveland’s defeat of Blaine for the presidency, Representative Reagan of Texas, author of a bill regulating interstate commerce, assailed William Walter for his past railroad activities in the state. Opposing the bill and responding to the representative’s accusations of unfair freight-charging, William Walter charged the state with failing to honor its agreement to bond subsidies for the railroad. It was not, he said, railroad managers like himself who were gouging the consumer, but railroad stock speculators. This, as I will show later, was disingenuous.
I choose to digress here, because this era, the Gilded Era, saw the rapid accumulation of great wealth in the development of the railroad, and William Walter was a railroad man, a fact for which there is scant detail in the public record.
The expansion of the railroads across the country was effected at the expense of huge amounts of public money in the form of subsidies and bonds granted by the federal and state governments. This process was attended by much corruption. Railroad men fought amongst themselves without scruple. Indeed, the accumulation of capital was seen as the greatest good, no matter the means employed. These included lavish offerings to members of congress in return for favors. Many were accepted. In some cases a congressman would take money from two competing railroad men and later decline both their interests. Washington was awash in railroad money and many were tainted by it. Garfield (the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872) and Blaine (the Mulligan Letters of 1876) were both affected, though both may have been guiltless and neither demonstrated any profit by their alleged involvement.
None of this is to suggest that William Walter accepted railroad bribes. The circumstances of his interests in Texas are as follows.
The International & Great Northern Railroad Company, formed in 1873, constituted a major component of the Missouri Pacific lines in Texas. William Walter was a principal investor along with William Dodge and others. In 1878, the company went into receivership. The land granted to the railroad through bonds and subsidies, three million acres in the Panhandle, was held in the Texas Land Company. As a consequence of the line’s default, this land passed into the hands of William Walter, William Dodge and two New York financiers, Samuel Thorne and John S. Kennedy. Henceforth, it was known as the New York and Texas Land Company. Not long after, the company acquired a further two million acres discounted by the state legislature, making it the biggest private land company in Texas at that time since the Civil War. The land would provide valuable grazing rights and, in the next century, oil. By the turn of the century, a few years after William Walter’s death in 1894, the company’s lands had been sold and it was terminated. Though the company’s papers were burnt at a celebratory event - an action it was entitled to as a private company - enough evidence exists to show that it had been an immensely profitable venture.
Concerning William Walter’s railroad interests, the foregoing lies in the public record. Beyond this, as mentioned, there is precious little else readily available. Hugh Herrick, his biographer, notes his directorship on the boards of nine railroads, but tantalizingly fails to identify them. In addressing this omission I have uncovered activities that detract from the honorable character William Walter would have wished for his legacy. Of particular note are his associations with the era’s consummate speculator, Jay Gould.
In 1872, Horace Greeley, editor and publisher of the New YorkHerald Tribune, died campaigning on the Democrat-Republican ticket in the presidential elections. A struggle for the influential paper’s ownership ensued between the right wing of the Republican party led by the New York party boss, Roscoe Conkling, and a reforming element including William Walter. Formerly a noted Civil War correspondent, Whitelaw Reid, fast-becoming a close friend of William Walter, was the paper’s assistant editor and funds were sought to enable his ownership. Reid’s biographer, Bingham Duncan, states that Jay Gould, seeking favorable press following the turmoil of the Erie railroad wars, was brought into the group and made a loan. Because Gould’s name could not be publicized, William Walter presented himself as the de facto leader. This latter is corroborated by Reid’s other biographer, Royal Cortissoz, and Herrick’s biography of William Walter.
Towards the end of the presidential elections of 1880, William Walter, identified as Gould’s attorney, participated with Whitelaw Reid as intermediaries in a bribe of Garfield by the speculator. In return Gould demanded the controlled appointment of three supreme court justices. Ted Nace’s Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy presents a detailed account (pgs. 90-93) based on Reid’s correspondence with Garfield. The bribe, accepted in the last days of the campaign when funds were dangerously low – the party needed to secure Indiana to ensure success - was $150,000 (currently approximately 2.6 million). Gould’s quid pro quo, initially realized by the successful nomination of his former Midwest attorney Stanley Matthews, was cut short by Garfield’s assassination.
A further detailed source for aspects of this event, though omitting mention of William Walter’s involvement, can be found in C. Peter Magrath’s study of the Waite Supreme Court, Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character (pgs. 243-247). This also refers to a claim that railroad man Collis P. Huntington colluded in the bribe, matching Gould’s offer (p.246, footnote).
The presidential election of 1884, pitting Blaine against Grover Cleveland, was particularly acrimonious. Blaine and his supporters were depicted as the embodiment of corruption in the popular press: HarpWeek (online) archives a number of stark cartoons, including a series devoted solely to Phelps and Reid. Gould was also present as a contributor to Blaine’s campaign.
As to William Walter’s railroad connections to Gould, Bob Griffin of Bergen Books has unearthed a number of lines in which they were both involved. These include the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W), the Morris & Essex in New Jersey, the Oswego & Syracuse and the Lake Erie & Western. William Walter’s father, John Jay, was an early investor in the DL&W, and John Jay II had an interest in another line, the Cayuga & Susquehanna, also controlled by Gould. Gould was also a director of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, William Walter’s father-in-law Joseph Earl Sheffield’s old line, and of the International & Great Northern, following its bankruptcy that led to the establishment of the New York and Texas Land Company. Another line of which William Walter was a director, though Gould is not mentioned, was the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western; also, the Western Car Company, a provider of rolling stock.
It is clear from all this that William Walter was in the thick of things and a fixer for moneyed interests.
In consideration of William Walter’s character, family legacy must be considered. His father, a silent and critical man who had worked his way up from a humble farm life to a position of wealth and prominence in the country’s most powerful city, had high expectations for his only surviving son. No doubt, the loss of another, Francis while a child, sharpened his concern for the family’s future. Deprived by circumstances of any but the lowliest education himself, he sent William Walter to Yale and Columbia, educational institutions associated with national leadership. William Walter, a Bonesman, 1860, would be a Yale trustee for twenty years. Phelps Gate on the Old Campus was endowed in his memory by the family.
In addition to his ill-health as a reason for bowing out of the public sphere on occasion, there is also the hint of a reluctance to pursue his father’s goals. Did the one act as a pretext for the other? It is interesting to note that William Walter took second place at his graduating examination at Yale by choosing to take a drive with his wife-to-be, Ellen Maria, over writing a required paper. He married her on the eve of graduation. Whatever the merits of this and nonetheless, his career demonstrates persistent ambition. Responding to a query as to whether he would ever refuse office, he said: "By no means. From boyhood I have always held and avowed the opinion that the people could command the services of any citizen for any post. If I were elected poundkeeper I would serve. I should, of course, prefer that they should summon me to more congenial duties,………….but my preference would not prevent my obedience to any call, whether I wanted it or not." (Herrick)
In 1887, William Walter divested himself of his business interests. A Sherman/Phelps – Senator John Sherman, from Ohio - ticket was mooted for the coming elections. The following year he was paired with Benjamin Harrison on the fifth ballot, and there is evidence to suggest that he would have been acceptable. However, the New York banker, Levi P. Morton, prevailed on the sixth, bringing with him the more powerful New York delegation. Though there was no love lost between them, Harrison’s victory owed significantly to Blaine, who declined to stand against him. Blaine was appointed Secretary of State and William Walter rewarded with the ministerial posting to Germany. Whatever their expectations for further office, ill-health would bring about their deaths within a few years: Blaine with Bright’s disease, a diabetic condition, in 1893, and William Walter with tuberculosis, a year later.
A cameo of William Walter in the House may serve to underscore his particular individuality. It involves a New York Democrat, Perry Belmont.
As a new member of the House in 1882 and placed on the Foreign Affairs committee, Perry Belmont had aggressively attacked James Blaine over matters involving Chili and Peru, going so far as to call him “a bully and a coward.” Strong words for a freshman to a man of Blaine’s lengthy and notable career in the House. Subsequent reports of Belmont indicate that, while he may have found it easy to attack another, he was woefully inadequate as a speaker in promoting legislation. In 1887, in the Fiftieth Congress, by which time Belmont had become chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, William Walter tore him to shreds in a debate involving a retaliatory fisheries bill, forcing him to sit down. It may be said that in doing so he avenged the insults to his friend Blaine. Later, in the same session, Belmont proposed an appropriation for American exhibitors to the aforementioned centenary exposition in Melbourne, Australia. This was a bill strongly opposed by the right wing Republicans, yet close to William Walter’s heart. Crossing the floor, he coached Belmont and made the presenting and defending speeches. A remarkable comment on the intellectual state of the Democrat-controlled House that prevailed then.
Diplomacy was another strong suit for William Walter.
In 1884, a member of the German Liberal Union party noted for his socialist views, Dr. Eduard Lasker, died while on a visit to the U.S. A resolution of the House was passed proffering sympathy for the death and praising the statesman’s political philosophy. This was presented to the German Foreign Office by the American Minister and sent to parliament. Chancellor Bismarck, hostile to the views of the late statesman, refused to present it. When the Liberal Union party presented its thanks to the House, a diplomatic impasse occurred: accepting the thanks would acknowledge political views which were anathema to the powerful German Chancellor. Some members of the House wished to stand by the resolution, others were concerned not to give offense. A way out was found when William Walter drafted a resolution which, while acknowledging the more general sympathies of the resolution, omitted any mention of the dead man's political views. Incorporated was a disavowal of any interest in the relations of the executive and legislative branches of the German government, while an accompanying resolution thanked the Liberal Union party for its recognition.
As one of three commissioners to the Berlin conference in 1889 to resolve the Samoan Islands’ dispute, William Walter was described as a ‘peacemaker.’ The problem of the Samoan Islands is too involved to enter into here in detail. Briefly, it concerned territorial issues that had arisen from German, American and British interests in the islands. There had been a prolonged period of internal strife, with wars amongst the natives and involving the three powers. Matters had come to a head when a number of German soldiers were killed in a battle with a native faction. While the conference failed to resolve the underlying issues - another ten years would pass before that happened - a major sticking point was the composition of the municipal governing council in Apia, the principal community. After a lengthy period of argument, William Walter proposed an arrangement satisfactory to all.
As Minister to Germany, one of William Walter’s duties was to host an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration for members of the American colony. A group composed of varied sentiments and behaviors, rich and poor, they seldom got along with one another and the celebration frequently figured discord. For the first such occasion William Walter arranged a series of lavish events – a banquet, a concert and a ball – underwriting many of the expenses himself so as to make it affordable for all. While the reception of these by his guests is unrecorded, a subsequent Thanksgiving celebration reveals a different approach. Striving for harmony, he separated the guests into three groups – members of the mission, physicians, and the King’s Daughters of the American Church. This required three different dinners, at each of which he made an appearance.
In respect of his relatives, the affair involving William Walter’s father’s first cousin and partner, Amos Richards Eno, highlights his ability to broker a deal in a time of crisis. As with the Samoan Islands, I must abbreviate a detailed account. In 1864, Amos Eno opened a bank, the Second National City Bank, in the hotel he had built, the Fifth Avenue Hotel. In May, 1884, it came to light that Amos’s son, John Chester, whom he had made president of the bank, had embezzled all the funds. The bank was broke to the tune of four-and-a-half-million, including Amos’s securities. Amos’s wealth, twenty million, was principally in city real estate. It was a desperate situation. He sent a telegram to William Walter urging him to come at once, which he did. For three days William Walter engaged with an angry father and a board of directors who were reluctant to pony up the cash. At the last, after two infusions of cash himself, the bank was secured. Though he had once been on the board of directors of the bank, William Walter had no obligation to it, other than his voluntary assumption of support for the relative who owned it.
Loyal, generous and sympathetic, William Walter was ever present for his friends. The wedding of Blaine’s daughter, Alice, in 1883, took place at the family’s house adjacent to William Walter’s at Dupont Circle. Mrs. Blaine writes, “…Mr. Phelps (assisting with the reception)…came and went from the top of the house to the bottom 100 times in his anxiety lest anything unforeseen and unprovided should mar the occasion……..Another moment and W. W. P. came in view to say that the stairway was cleared for the family. So down we went.”
There is also consideration of the age in which William Walter lived.
John Jay, William Walter’s father, was of the mercantile class, whose social values prevailed before the Civil War. Mercantilists were predominantly traders – John Jay Phelps and Amos Eno were dry goods wholesalers. The ethics of the mercantile class presumed a society in which every man might rise to his natural level of ability. Trading required little manpower and, once an individual had apprenticed themselves and learned a trade, it was customary for him to go off and start his own business. For this reason, the view of society expressed by the most influential class of the day was one in which everyone could share the same prospects for advancement. It was socially inclusive. The Civil War, requiring huge amounts of money and manufacture, created new classes who rapidly replaced the mercantilists and their view of society. The bankers and financiers and industrialists who rapidly rose to prominence following the Civil War had different needs. Manufacturing required a steady supply of cooperative employees. Working conditions were often appalling and there was little chance for advancement. This produced a socially exclusive ruling class and a working class that came to be increasingly at odds with it.
William Walter sensed these changes with concern. As he saw it, the encroachment of wealth in public life was producing a hollow shell and robbing society of its spiritual core. Speaking at a New York celebration in 1880 on the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, on the theme "Highland Hospitality," he commented: "Already we feel that the lack of the age is not the hospitality that warms the body, but a hospitality that shall warm the heart. A stimulated sympathy makes us build hospitals, libraries, and galleries, and Bible and tract societies - enough to make the outer life of the citizen comfortable and comely, and then? How easy to share our homes! How hard, our hearts! How easy to give money; how hard to give sympathy and love! Yet these qualities only are divine and the most vital to the happiness of man. But these qualities are the very ones that civilization - modern life - with all its infinite resources, is powerless to give….. Shall our schools and colleges, our railways and telegraphs, our galleries and museums, our colossal fortunes, putting into single hands the resources of empire, make a nation whose manners and morals shall be good, because their intellectual perception of the right and proper shall be perfect; whose institutions of education and charity shall be complete and satisfactory; who shall discharge all duties perfectly, but mechanically and without heart? Then life will indeed be perfect and not worth living; and the human hearts, when not changed to brains, starving in the midst of apparent plenty, longing for sympathy and love, dying in the midst of life, shall cry in despair: 'Who shall deliver us from the bondage of death?' Yet this is the tendency of modern culture."
Here, then, was an East coast capitalist who, coming of age and formed in part by a more respectful era, was faced with the challenges posed by the stultifying indifference towards others implicit in the virtues of the new era that the Civil War so rudely and rapidly ushered in on the nation. Money would no longer provide the glue that held different classes of society together by offering a route to advancement. Instead, it would become the weapon that threatened to destroy the whole fabric. Ambition made William Walter blind to his collusion with these dark forces and act against his better nature.
William Walter’s last appointment was to the New Jersey State Court of Errors and Appeals in 1893. He was dying of tuberculosis and it was obvious to those around him. In the spring of the following year he traveled to Old Point Comfort, Virginia, where he stayed with his secretary, Hugh Herrick, at the Hygeia Hotel. His natural sociability was drained by the disease and he sought seclusion. Hoping for a remission, they went to Hot Springs, a spa in West Virginia. But there was to be none. Returning to Teaneck, he died on June 17 surrounded by his family, two months shy of his fifty-fifth birthday on August 24.
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