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Ashbel P. Fitch

Champion of Old New York

David F. Remington

Publication Year: 2011

The concept of an "honest Tammany man" sounds like an oxymoron, but it became a reality in the curious career of Ashbel P. Fitch, who served New York City as a four-term congressman and a one-term city comptroller during the late nineteenth century. Although little known today, Fitch was well respected in his own day and played a pivotal role on both national and local stages. In the U.S. Congress, Fitch was a passionate advocate of New York City. His support of tariff reform and his efforts to have New York City chosen as the site for an 1892 World Exposition reflected his deep interest in issues of industrialization and urbanization. An ardent defender of immigrant rights, Fitch opposed the xenophobia of the times and championed cosmopolitan diversity. As New York’s comptroller, he oversaw the city’s finances during a time of terrible economic distress, withstanding threats from Tammany Hall on one side and from Mayor William L. Strong’s misguided reform administration on the other. In Ashbel P. Fitch, Remington succeeds in illuminating the independence and integrity of this unsung hero against the backdrop of the Gilded Age’s corrupt politics and fierce party loyalty.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Nothing is so difficult as shedding light on an unknown historical figure, but Dave Remington has rescued Ashbel P. Fitch from obscurity. Not colorful like James G. Blaine or corrupt like William M. Tweed, Fitch was notable for being independent and principled. ....

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pp. xiii-xv

I have been living with Ashbel Fitch since my childhood. He was an ethereal presence at the Adirondack estate that my cousins and I frequented and that Fitch had acquired years before. I remember my father talking about his grandfather’s friend- ship with Grover Cleveland. ...

Fitch and Parmelee Ancestry

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pp. xvii

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pp. 1-10

Mayor William L. Strong slammed the top of the solid oak table. Everyone jumped. The mayor cried “Gentlemen stop it or I’ll have you both arrested.” It was early May 1896 in New York City at a Board of Estimate meeting in the mayor’s office at city hall. ...

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1. Forebears and Early Years, 1848–1885

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pp. 11-33

Ashbel Parmelee Fitch was born on October 8, 1848, in Mooers, New York, the first child of Edward and Fanny Parmelee Fitch. James K. Polk was president, American expansionism was at its height, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in March, and the Civil War was twelve years away. ...

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2. Politics and the Road to Washington

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pp. 34-51

By the mid-1880s, Fitch’s flourishing law practice was unusually diverse, running the gamut from estate and divorce law to reorganizations, liability, bankruptcy, and other corporate matters that were strictly commercial. For the brewers, children were mangled by beer wagons as they played on New York’s teeming streets, and Fitch defended the accused. ...

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3. National Prominence, Tariff Speech: Fiftieth Congress, 1886–1888

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pp. 52-74

The next day, December 6, 1887, Grover Cleveland, with no warning and to the astonishment of many, utilized his entire annual message to Congress to focus the nation’s attention on the tariff. A full year before the presidential election of 1888, Cleveland initiated an intensive effort to raise the nation’s awareness of the cruel inequities of the tariff system. ...

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4. New York’s World’s Fair Lost: Fifty-first Congress, 1888–1890

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pp. 75-91

On the last Saturday in 1888, Fitch was in Boston at the Hotel Vendome as a featured speaker at the Massachusetts Tariff Reform League. Three hundred disciples of tariff reform were there, their first such gathering since the election, and where there might have been defeat or discouragement in the air there was excitement and optimism. ...

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5. Republican Overreach, Democratic Momentum: Fifty-first Congress, 1888–1890

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pp. 92-103

In early May 1890, the tariff retook center stage in the Fifty-first Congress under the skilled leadership of Ohio Republican William McKinley, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the nation’s twenty-fifth president-to-be. Republicans controlled the House. ...

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6. Silver Beckons: Fifty-second Congress, 1890–1892

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pp. 104-119

Although the 1892 presidential election was still a year away, the election of a new House Speaker marked the substantive beginning of the race between Cleveland and David B. Hill for the Democratic presidential nomination. Cleveland had not yet declared his candidacy, and no one was sure if he could be nominated and win if he did. ...

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7. New York and the Election Law in Cleveland’s Victory: Fifty-second Congress, 1890–1892

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pp. 120-139

Early in 1892, the tender stalks of political plans and aspirations began to shoot skyward just as flowers bloom in the spring. Hill’s candidacy for president reached its zenith in February of that year and then fell precipitously during the next few months. ...

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8. Repeal of the Election Law and Sherman Act: Fifty-third Congress, 1892–1894

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pp. 140-148

The panic of 1893 and the tragic depression that followed began before Grover Cleveland took office.1 One of several reasons for the disaster was the fifteen-year injection of silver into the nation’s money supply, which ultimately led to a debilitating and catastrophic loss of confidence. ...

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9. New York City’s Watershed

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pp. 149-169

Fitch’s nomination for city controller was a surprise to New Yorkers. It was a turning point in his career, from legislating and speech-making to the executive management of a large enterprise, and it came at a turning point in the city’s history. The country was on the brink of financial ruin. ...

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10. Reformers in Charge, 1895

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pp. 170-197

Election day brought victory to the reformers. Strong’s 60 percent of the popular vote1 was a remarkable showing for a New York Republican, notwithstanding his reform candidacy. Jubilant headlines trumpeted, “Tammany Crushed,” “Turn the Rascals Out,” “Richard Croker Is Blamed,” and “Tammany Men to Be Driven from Public Crib.” ...

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11. A Crash and a Bang

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pp. 198-218

The first budgeting season for the Democratic controller and the Republican-reform administration of Mayor Strong began before the election. Accompanying press reporting of the Board of Estimate meetings were headlines1 such as “High Price of Reform,” “Want Six Millions,” “1896 Budget Grows,” “Millions For Schools,”...

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12. Silver and the New York Elections of 1896 and 1897

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pp. 219-242

In June 1896, Governor Levi Morton released the names of nine men1 that he selected to join six others2 already named who would frame a charter for Greater New York. Included were General Benjamin F. Tracy, former secretary of the navy in the Harrison administration; ...

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13. Passage

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pp. 243-253

Fitch was surely disappointed, probably annoyed, perhaps puzzled, but not surprised by his defeat. He had wanted to be Greater New York’s first controller and he knew he deserved it, but again Goethe’s philosophical influence showed through. He was beaten by events that were beyond his control. ...

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pp. 254-257

It is a responsibility to write a life’s story. What should be said or not said? Ashbel Fitch was smart, honest, loyal, pragmatic, loving, serious, hard-working, progressive, independent, outspoken, courageous, cheerful, and fun-loving. Where should it end? Goethe said,...

Appendix A: Letter from Ashbel Fitsch to Cornelius van Cott, November 27, 1887

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pp. 261-263

Appendix B: Speech of Hon. Ashbel P. Fitch in the House of Representatives, Monday, May 16, 1888

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pp. 265-270

Appendix C: Speech of Hon. Ashbel P. Fitch in the House of Representatives, Monday, October 9, 1893

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pp. 271-277


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pp. 279-315


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pp. 317-319

Index [Includes Back Cover]

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pp. 321-331

E-ISBN-13: 9780815651642
E-ISBN-10: 0815651643
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609889
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609884

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 32 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States. Congress. House -- Biography.
  • Fitch, Ashbel P. (Ashbel Parmelee), 1848-1904.
  • Legislators -- United States.
  • Legislators -- New York -- Biography.
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