Platt, Thomas Collier, 1833-1910

Alternative names
Birth 1833-07-15
Death 1910-03-06

Biographical notes:

Thomas Collier Platt was a Republican Senator from New York. It was through his influence in the Republican party that Theodore Roosevelt became William McKinley's running mate in the 1900 presidential election.

From the description of Thomas Collier Platt photograph album of Theodore Roosevelt, not before 1905. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 612813357

Thomas Collier Platt: clerk of Tioga County (N.Y.), 1859-1961; member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1873-1877, and Senate, 1881, 1896-1909; president of the Tioga National Bank; president of the U.S. Express Company, 1880-1910; president of Quarantine Commissioners of New York, 1880-1888.

From the description of Thomas Collier Platt papers, 1851-1915 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702168327

Thomas Collier Platt (1833-1910) of Owego, New York, was an American legislator and politician. A two-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1873-1877) and a three-term U.S. Senator from New York in the years 1881 and 1897-1909, he is best known for his contribution to the creation of the City of Greater New York which incorporated the four outer boroughs of Kings, Queens, Richmond and Bronx counties.

From the guide to the Thomas Collier Platt Letters, 1896-1910, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Thomas Collier Platt: clerk of Tioga County (N.Y.), 1859-1961; member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1873-1877, and Senate, 1881, 1896-1909; president of the Tioga National Bank; president of the U.S. Express Company, 1880-1910; president of Quarantine Commissioners of New York, 1880-1888.

(adapted from Richard L. McCormick's article in the Spring, 1975, Yale Library Gazette)

Thomas Collier Platt was born on July 15, 1833, in Owego, Tioga County, New York. His father William was committed to making his youngest son, Thomas, a minister. "Not at all favorably impressed" with the prospect Thomas, nevertheless, entered Yale College in 1849 with the expectation of proceeding for the degree of Doctor of Divinity. Poor health cut short his college education after a single year. (In 1876 Yale awarded Platt, then a congressman, an honorary Master of Arts degree.)

Returning to Owego, Platt began his business career as a druggist entering into a partnership with Frederic K. Hull. Late in 1852, Platt married Ellen Lucy Barstow of Owego. Though the drug store prospered, Platt's preoccupation was with politics. An early supporter of the newly-formed Republican party, Platt cast his first vote in 1856 for John C. Fremont. Despite nationwide defeat, the fledgling Republicans established their dominance in Tioga County, and Platt prospered politically with his party. Due to his ill health Platt did not serve in the Civil War, but remained at home raising money to support Union troops and persuading voters to support the Republican administration. By the late 1860s, Platt was Republican County Chairman in Tioga, and already a political power in the Southern Tier

From 1870 until 1881, Platt tied his political career closely to that of Senator Roscoe Conkling. State party conventions in the early 1870s saw a succession of battles for leadership between Conkling and Reuben E. Fenton. At each convention Platt worked wholeheartedly for Conkling, marshalling the votes of the "Southern Tier" in the Senator's support. Conkling's triumph over Fenton continued Platt's political advancement. Platt was elected to Congress in 1872 and 1874 but declined re-election in 1876. That year saw Platt's first attendance at a National Republican convention, not surprisingly as a leader of the movement to nominate Conkling for President. In recognition of his loyalty Conkling made Platt chairman of the Republican State Committee.

Platt's rise to power in the 1870s was not based on his identification with any abstract political principles or espousal of any significant policies. Rather, Platt had made himself a careful student of the leadership tactics of Thurlow Weed, Reuben Fenton, and Conkling. He had learned well the details of party management, the day in and day out business of rewarding loyalty and punishing infidelity, granting patronage, collecting campaign funds and getting the faithful out to vote on election day.

During the decades when he was party boss, Platt added a significant new element to the techniques of his predecessors by rationalizing and centralizing the flow of corporate campaign funds to the party coffers. Rather than allow favor-seeking businessmen to deal individually with members of the legislature, Platt collected the contributions, distributed funds to friendly candidates, and masterminded the passage of legislative rewards for the generous corporations. Theoretically, all contributions were thereafter received at party headquarters. In practice, however, the Platt system failed to eliminate bribery entirely and it systematized the domination of the New York Republican party by business and financial interests.

Platt himself did not profit financially from his political dealings. He made his money elsewhere. He became president of the Tioga County National Bank and held substantial lumbering and railroad interests. Platt's advancement to the state party chairmanship coincided with his appointment as general manager of the United States Express Company, and in 1880 he became the company's president, a position he would hold for the next 30 years.

In January, 1881, the New York State legislature elected Platt to the United States Senate. As state party chairman Platt had distributed patronage and party funds wisely, and many members of the State Assembly were under personal obligation to him. What is more, he had won Chauncey Depew's support by campaigning strenuously for the election of Garfield, though he had originally preferred the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant for an unprecedented third term.

Scarcely two months after Platt's election, President Garfield chose William H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York, a post which represented the most lucrative patrongage position in the country. Robertson was a member of the anti-Conkling faction of the New York Republican party, and his selection was a rebuff to Conkling by Garfield. At Platt's suggestion, both he and Conkling resigned from the Senate to seek vindication through re-election by the state legislature. Conkling and Platt failed to be renamed; the episode ended Conkling's political career.

After Conkling's demise, the New York state Republican party was leaderless, disoriented, and frequently beaten at the polls. Platt, having changed sides in the factional struggle going on in the party reemerged as a party leader in the mid-1880s. In supporting James G. Blaine for the presidency in 1884 Platt indicated that he was now allied with the forces who had always opposed Conkling.

By 1893 the New York Republican party's fortunes were rising and for the next sixteen years, the party would win every state and national election save one. As Republican boss Platt would lead an organization that controlled the government of New York state. His most significant political accomplishments came between 1894 and 1904. During that period Platt selected each of his party's successful gubernatorial nominees, including Levi Morton, Frank S. Black, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Odell. He presided over the legislative program, notably the consolidation of Greater New York City, state control of liquor traffic, and the improvement of the Erie Canal. In 1897 he was elected to the United States Senate.

During Theodore Roosevelt's term in Albany Platt's power gradually decreased as the governor insisted on choosing his own appointees and pushing his own programs through the legislature. It was Platt's plan to shelve Roosevelt by nominating him for the vice-presidency in 1900, thereby regaining control of the state party. The plan became a failure when Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency, and his successor as governor, Benjamin Odell, proved equally independent of the aging senator's domination. Though reelected to the Senate in 1904 Platt's real power was gone.

He died in New York City in March 6, 1910.

From the guide to the Thomas Collier Platt papers, 1851-1915, (Manuscripts and Archives)


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  • Public prosecutors--History--19th century
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