Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby

Clyndon G. Van DetisenLITTLE, BROWN, $4.00
THE life of Thurlow Weed, which began in 1797 and ended in 1882, spanned an era in American politics which, in many ways, makes a rather sordid story. This period gave rise to the spoils system, the legislative lobby, the alliance of business and politics, and, as the essential human agent combining these several phenomena and manipulating them for private advantage, the political boss.
Weed’s unfinished Autobiography, supplemented by the Memoir of his grandson, Thurlow Weed Barnes, two valuable contributions to the political annals of a stormy epoch, were published more than sixty years ago. and have the prejudiced interpretations and studied omissions inevitable in personal and family recollections. Meanwhile a vast amount of material has been accumulating in great American libraries, historical societies, and private collections. Professor Van Deusen. of the University of Rochester, has made an exhaustive study of this material and has produced a book that combines instruction and entertainment.
This judiciously written narrative makes clear that the popular reputation Weed has enjoyed fora century and more rests on substantial ground. All the arts associated with the word “boss” he cultivated in high degree. He was a tricky politician, a merchandizer of votes, both at the ballot booth and in legislative chambers, a remorseless spoilsman, an impassioned partisan, a speculator in stocks on the basis of inside political information, a lobbyist who accepted bribes from corporations for “jamming through” bills they favored and “killing” measures they opposed, and the recognized legislative agent in Albany for the New York Central Railroad and the George Law traction crowd in a monstrously corrupt era — all of this greatly to his personal advantage, for Weed, whose youth and early married life had been passed in squalid want, spent his mature life and old age in luxury.
Mr. Van Denson attempts to discover some items to put on the credit side of Weed’s character and life. Weed had that loyalty to friends, that devotion to family, that geniality and gift for conversation and anecdote, and that generous, charitable nature that seem the sine qua NON of the most successful machine leader, and he acquired an influence that extended far beyond his own state.
The one conspicuous inadequacy in Mr. Van Deusen’s book is the extremely sketchy treatment of the most important episode in Weed’s career — his effort, in association with Seward, to seize control of the Lincoln administration. It was this same intrigued-against President who gave Weed the opportunity for at least one great, unselfish public service. He sent Weed, in 1861, on a kind of Colonel House mission to Europe. His arrival coincided with the Trent episode, and his daily letters to Seward probably had much to do with Seward s skillful handling of that crisis. In this instance Weed stepped out of his role of party manager and for a brief moment became a statesman.