The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Low, Seth

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Low, Seth

LOW, Seth, educator, mayor of New York, b. in Brooklyn, N. Y., 18 Jan., 1850; d. at Bedford Hills, N. Y., 17 Sept., 1916, son of Abiel Abbott and Ellen (Dow) Low. He was descended from the earliest settlers of Massachusetts. His grandfather, after his graduation at Harvard University, in 1828, located in New York City. His father, who was president of the chamber of commerce (1863-66), founded the well-known tea and silk importing firm of A. A. Low and Bros., and owned over a dozen of those graceful clipper ships which had made the American merchant marine famous at that time by their swift passage around Cape Horn to the Orient. Seth Low received his education in the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and was graduated at Columbia College in 1870. His career as a student was a brilliant one, both in study and in athletics. He distinguished himself in tennis, football, bowling, and billiards, and was often pitted against the famous Hamilton Fish on the gridiron. Dr. Barnard, who was then president of Columbia, was especially attracted toward him and said, in a letter to a friend: “I have just had a long talk with young Low, the first scholar in the college and the most manly young fellow we have had here in many a year.” Immediately after graduation Mr. Low made an extensive trip abroad, to complete his education by means of personal observation of foreign countries. Upon his return he entered his father's office, at first as a clerk, but on his father's retirement he took his place as head of the firm. As a resident of Brooklyn Mr. Low showed an active interest in the affairs of the city. When only twenty-eight years of age, he organized and became the first president of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, the purpose of this organization being to establish the distribution of the public charities on an efficient basis in Kings County, where for years it had been notoriously bad. Together with hundreds of other public-spirited citizens, Mr. Low gave his time freely to a close supervision of the needs of the poorer classes in the county and city. The bureau was the fourth organization of its kind in the country and effected a vast economy in the distribution of charity. At about the same time Mr. Low became active in municipal politics and organized the Young Republican Club, of which he was the first president. This club was essentially different from the ordinary political clubs, in that its members were forbidden to seek nomination for public office, its main object being to organize citizens interested in bettering political conditions in the party. Its strength in the municipal campaign was a tremendous surprise to the regular politicians, most of whom could not imagine an interest in politics not actuated by a desire for the spoils of office. Municipal affairs were then in a deplorable condition throughout Now York State, as a result from the waste and corruption of the Tweed ring in New York City. To cure these evils Mr. Low, backed by his club, determined to carry on an active campaign against the corrupt influences which, so far as municipal affairs were ooncerned, should not be along party lines. In the political campaign of 1881, which was the first under the now city charter, General Tracy had been nominated candidate for mayor by the Republicans and Mr. Ropes by the Independents. Obviously this split would make it impossible to triumph over the machine. General Tracy suggested, therefore, that both candidates retire in favor of Mr. Low as candidate for both factions. The other candidate agreeing, Mr. Low was nominated and was elected mayor of Brooklyn by a large majority. So pleased was the electorate with his administration, that, two years later, he was re-elected for a second term. Mr. Low's two administrations brought him the enthusiastic praise of people in all parts of the country. By injecting strict business principles into the administrative affairs of the city he effected great economies and remarkable reforms. Aside from that, he was absolutely fearless in following the dictates of his own judgment. On appointing the heads of departments he made it a condition with each of his appointees that he should hold his resignation at the instant disposal of the mayor, which was an innovation in politics that brought a great deal of criticism from the old-time politicians. The most outstanding results of his administration were the reform of the tax collection system, the extension and improvement of the schools, the development of bridge facilities, the improvement of public works, and, above all, the establishment of the merit system in the lower grades of the civil service, another innovation distinctly distasteful to the professional politicians. After a long period of retirement Mr. Low again entered politics, in 1897, this time in New York City, being then nominated by the leaders of the reform movement as their candidate for mayor. On account of the Republicans refusing to support the Fusion ticket, Mr. Low was defeated by the Tammany Democracy. In 1900 he again ran for mayor at the head of the reformers, and this time he was elected by a large majority. His administration of the affairs of New York City was no less successful than his administration in Brooklyn had been. In 1881 Mr. Low had been appointed a member of the board of trustees of Columbia College. In 1890 he was offered the presidency of that institution, to succeed Dr. Barnard. Without any pretensions to being an educator, he proved himself quite as able as an administrator of an institution of learning as of a city. Through his efforts the university was removed from its cramped quarters on Madison Avenue to its present location on Morningside Heights. Through his influence it received many large gifts, and gradually he made it one of the leading centers of learning in the United States, with more students than any other university. He himself gave $1,000,000 with which to build the present magnificent library building, in memory of his father. Aside from this, he effected the co-ordination of the various schools, and founded the University Council, which brought into the sphere of the university's influence more than 5,000 students and 500 professors and instructors. It was Mr. Low who first voiced the idea of specialization for universities, which he stated in the following words: “Each college has its specific need. When I was in Chicago I urged the university of that city to become an authority on railroads, since it was situated in the greatest railroad center of the country. While at Johns Hopkins I said that university should give its attention to the negro problem. I believe also that the University of California should devote itself to the Asiatic question. As for Columbia, situated in this city, I believe that its attention should be turned to finance, and on the human side it should study carefully the immigration question. Each institution should attempt to become an authority on that subject to which its geographical situation makes it best adapted.” In 1901 Mr. Low resigned the presidency of the university, but he continued as one of the trustees until 1914, when he completely ended his connection with the institution, after serving on its board for thirty-three years. Mr. Low has held many offices of a semi-public nature. In 1899 President McKinley appointed him one of the delegates from this country to the Peace Conference at The Hague. He took a prominent part in the proceedings of this international body, and his services were highly commended by the President. After his retirement from active participation in politics, he still took part in the effort to bring about reforms in the State election laws. He was also keenly interested in all problems affected by the relations between capital and labor, notably as one of the most active members of the Civic Federation, it being his belief that capital and labor needed only to understand each other better to work together in harmony. He was prominent as an arbitrator in labor disputes; in November, 1914, he was one of the commission of three appointed by President Wilson to settle the coal strike in Colorado. In the same year he was elected president of the chamber of commerce, in which he was especially active after the outbreak of the European War. He was also chairman of the executive committee of Tuskegee Institute. At the recent State Constitutional Convention in New York he was chairman of the Committee on City Government. Within recent years he became interested in the food supply problem, involving the constantly increasing cost of living and became convinced that this difficulty could best be solved by democratic co-operation among farmers and consumers. He was president of the Bedford Farmers' Co-operative Association. He was also one of the founders of the Co-operative Wholesale Corporation of New York City, an organization which sought to bring about a business federation of all the consumers' co-operative store societies in the East, but not being in sympathy with the radical tendency of this phase of the co-operative movement, he finally resigned and devoted himself entirely to the agricultural phase of co-operation. Mr. Low was also a trustee of the Carnegie Institute of Washington. On 9 Dec, 1880, Mr. Low married Annie Wroe Scollay, daughter of Justice Benjamin Robins Curtis, of the U. S. Supreme Court. Mr. and Mrs. Low had no children, but adopted two nieces and a nephew.