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Seth Low

Seth Low
92nd[1] Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1902 – December 31, 1903
Preceded by Robert Anderson Van Wyck
Succeeded by George Brinton McClellan, Jr.
11th President of Columbia University
In office
Preceded by Frederick A.P. Barnard
Succeeded by Nicholas Murray Butler
23rd Mayor of Brooklyn
In office
January 1, 1881 – December 31, 1885
Preceded by James Howell
Succeeded by Daniel D. Whitney
Personal details
Born (1850-01-18)January 18, 1850
Brooklyn, New York
Died 17 September 1916(1916-09-17) (aged 66)
Bedford Hills, New York
Resting place Green-Wood Cemetery
Nationality American
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Anne Wroe Scollay Curtis
Parents Abiel Abbot Low and Ellen Almira Dow
Religion Episcopalian

Seth Low (January 18, 1850 – September 17, 1916), born in Brooklyn, New York, was an American educator and political figure who served as mayor of Brooklyn, as President of Columbia University, as diplomatic representative of the United States, and as 92nd Mayor of New York City. He was a leading municipal reformer fighting for efficiency during the Progressive Era.


  • Early life 1
  • Mayor of Brooklyn 2
    • First term 2.1
    • Second term 2.2
  • President of Columbia University 3
  • International Peace Conference 4
  • Mayor of New York City 5
  • Later life 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Seth Low was the son of Abiel Abbot Low and Ellen Almira Dow.[2][3] Low's father was a leading China trader, and his father's sister, Harriet Low, was one of the first young American women to live in China.[4] The Low family was old Puritan New England stock, descended from Thomas Low of Essex County, Massachusetts.[2] Low was named after his grandfather Seth Low (1782–1853) who moved with his son Abiel to Brooklyn to start a prosperous importing company.[2] When Brooklyn was incorporated as a city in 1834, Seth the elder was one of the incorporators; he also served on the Board of Aldermen and was first President of the Board of Education.[2] Seth the elder was also involved with charity and support work for the poor; on his deathbed, he admonished his three-year-old grandson and namesake: "Be kind to the poor."[2]

Seth's father was a Unitarian, and his mother was an Episcopalian.[2] For years, Seth wavered between the two faiths. Finally, at age 22, Seth decided he would henceforth be an Episcopalian.[2]

Low attended Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn and Columbia College. After graduating from Columbia in 1870, Low made a short trip abroad, and then entered the tea and silk house of A. A. Low & Brothers, which had been founded by his father in New York. In 1875, he was admitted a member of the firm, from which, upon its liquidation in 1888, he withdrew with a large fortune.[5] On December 9, 1880 he married Anne Wroe Scollay Curtis of Boston, daughter of Justice Benjamin R. Curtis of the United States Supreme Court. They had no biological children, but adopted two nieces and a nephew.[3]

Mayor of Brooklyn

First term

By 1881 Brooklyn had been governed for years by a corrupt Democratic political machine under Hugh McLaughlin.[2] By this time, a wave of goo-goo (or "good government") sentiment had begun to gain favor, and public sentiment was starting to turn against the incumbent Democratic regime.[2]

Brooklyn Republicans sensed an opportunity, but they were split between the "stalwart" candidate Benjamin F. Tracy and reform candidate Ripley Ropes.[2] Seth Low had no particular ambition to become Mayor,[2] but his name was brought forth as a compromise, because his wealth and old family name appealed to the "stalwarts" and his reformist views appealed to the reformers.[2] Low accepted the nomination at the Republican city convention, making it clear that he would not be a partisan mayor.[2] Low defeated the incumbent Democrat James Howell after a two-week campaign, 45,434 votes to 40,937.[2]

Low's time in office was marked by a number of reforms:

  • Low's major achievement as mayor was to secure a degree of "home rule" of the city. Previously, the State Government dictated city policies, hiring, salaries, and other affairs. Low managed to secure an unofficial veto over all Brooklyn bills in the State Assembly.[2]
  • Low instituted a number of educational reforms. He was the first to integrate Brooklyn schools.[2] He introduced free textbooks for all students, not just those who had taken a pauper's oath.[2] He instituted a competitive examination for hiring teachers, instead of giving teaching jobs to pay political debts.[2] Low set aside $430,000 for the construction of new schools to accommodate 10,000 new students.[2]
  • Low introduced Civil Service Code to all city employees, eliminating patronage jobs.[2]
  • German immigrants wanted to enjoy their local beer gardens on the Sabbath, in violation of state "dry" laws and the demands of local puritanical clergy. Low's compromise solution was that saloons could stay open as long as they were orderly.[2] At the first sign of rowdiness, they would be closed.[2]
  • Low served as a member of the board of the New York Bridge Company, the company that built the Brooklyn Bridge, and led an unsuccessful effort to remove Washington Roebling as the chief engineer on that project.[6]
  • Low raised the tax rate from $2.33 of $100 assessed valuation in 1881 to $2.59 in 1883.[2] He also went after property owners who had not paid back taxes.[2] This increase of city revenue enabled him to reduce the city's debt and increase services. However, raising taxes proved extremely unpopular.[2]

Second term

Low's tax increases and non-partisan governing policy lost him a measure of public support. By 1883, fellow Republicans were criticizing Low openly, and the press was critical of his tax policy.[2] Although the Democrats ran the weak, nearly unknown candidate Joseph C. Hendrix in 1883, Low beat him by a slimmer margin than his first election. Where Low won his first term by 5,000 votes, he squeaked by re-election with only a 1,548-vote margin.[2]

In 1884, Low's mugwump support of Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884 furthered the rift with his fellow Republicans. He declined to run for a third term in 1885, and refused to support Republican nominee General Isaac S. Catlin.[2] Instead, he supported a reform candidate, General John R. Woodward.[2] By this time, the public was losing their attraction to reform, and Democrat Daniel D. Whitney won election. With Whitney came the return of Democratic machine politics for another seven years.[2] By 1892, some writers were looking back on Seth Low's tenure as a "Golden Age" of clean government.[2]

President of Columbia University

Following his tenure as mayor of Brooklyn, Low assumed the presidency of Columbia College, serving between 1890 and 1901. Not an educator in the specific meaning of the word, he succeeded by his administrative skill in transforming the institution.[5] He led the move of the institution from Midtown Manhattan to Morningside Heights, and secured trustee approval to change its name to "Columbia University". The new campus matched Low's vision of a civic university fully integrated into the city; the original design, subsequently reconceived, left it open to the street and surrounding neighborhoods.

To forge a university, Low vitally united the various schools into one organization whose direction was moved from the separate faculties to a university council. Further reforms effected by him include the reorganization of the Law School, the addition of a faculty of pure science, the association with the university of the Teachers College, and the extension of the department of political and social study.[5] In 1895, he gave one million dollars of his inheritance from his father for Low Memorial Library to be built at the new Columbia University campus. It was dedicated to his father, and opened in 1897.

International Peace Conference

Seth Low (seated at right) with other members of the American delegation to the International Peace Conference, 1899

On July 4, 1899 he was one of the American delegates to attend the International Peace Conference at The Hague. Others in the delegation were Andrew D. White, then the United States Ambassador to the German Empire; Stanford Newel of Minnesota, then the United States Minister to the Netherlands; Captain Alfred Mahan, of the United States Navy; Captain William Crozier, of the United States Army; and Frederick Holls of New York.

At the conference, Low made the concluding speech, printed two months later in The New York Times, saying:

"On this day, so full for Americans of thoughts connected with their National Independence, we may not forget that Americans have yet other grounds for gratitude to the people of the Netherlands. We cannot forget that our flag received its first foreign salute from a Dutch officer, nor that the Province of Friesland gave to our independence its first formal recognition. By way of Leyden and Delft-Haven and Plymouth Rock, and again by way of New Amsterdam, the free public school reached American shores.
"The United States of America have taken their name from the United States of the Netherlands. We have learned from you only that 'in union there is strength'; that is an old lesson, but also, in large measure, how to make 'One out of many'. From you we have learned what we, at least, value, to separate Church and State; and from you we gather inspiration at all times in our devotion to learning, to religious liberty, and to individual and National freedom. These are some of the things for which we believe the American people owe no little gratitude to the Dutch; and these are the things for which today, speaking in the name of the American people, we venture to express their heartfelt thanks."

Mayor of New York City

Low's first campaign for mayor of consolidated New York in 1897 was unsuccessful, partially because of a division among anti-Tammany Hall candidates and parties. However, four years later, he managed to attain office.[7]

During his 1901 campaign, he had the support of humorist Mark Twain. He and Twain made a joint appearance that drew a crowd of more than 2,000.

In 1902, Low resigned as president of the university to become the second mayor of the newly consolidated George B. McClellan, Jr..

Later life

He was chairman of the Tuskegee Institute, the black school headed by Booker T. Washington, from 1907 until 1916. From 1907, he was also president of the business-labor alliance the National Civic Federation. Even though he believed in collective bargaining rights, which had customarily been denied to labor unions by those in authority, he did not favor strikes, but rather embraced arbitration as a suitable labor-management negotiation tactic. He was a founder and the first president of the Bureau of Charities of Brooklyn, and was elected vice-president of the New York Academy of Sciences and president of the Archaeological Institute of America.[5]

Low became interested in the food supply problem, that is its contribution to the constantly increasing consumers' cooperative store societies in the eastern United States, but not being in sympathy with the radical tendency of this phase of the cooperative movement, he finally resigned and devoted himself entirely to the agricultural phase of cooperation. Low was also a trustee of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C.[3]

In the Spring of 1916, Low became ill with cancer.[2] He died in his home in AFL founder Samuel Gompers. [8] He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

The Brooklyn Fire Department operated a fireboat named Seth Low from 1885 to 1917.[9]

See also


  1. ^ "The Green Book: Mayors of the City of New York" on the official NYC website]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Kurland, Gerald (1971). Seth Low: the Reformer in an Urban and Industrial Age. Ardent Media. 
  3. ^ a b c  Homans, James E., ed. (1918). "Low, Seth". The Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: The Press Association Compilers, Inc. 
  4. ^ Puga, Rogério Miguel (June 2008). "Interpreting Macau through the Journals of Harriett Low and Rebecca Chase Kinsman" (PDF). Sino-Western Cultural Research (中西文化研究) (Macau Polytechnic Institute) 1: 157–159. 
  5. ^ a b c d  "Low, Seth".  
  6. ^  
  7. ^ "Seth Low's Mayoralty".  
  8. ^ NYC 100 – NYC Mayors - The First 100 Years,
  9. ^ Clarence E. Meek (July 1954). "Fireboats Through The Years". Retrieved 2015-06-28. 
Further reading
  • Cerillo, Augustus. "Low, Seth" Feb. 2000; Access Date: Sept. 15 2013American National Biography Online
  • Fredman, L. E. "Seth Low: Theorist of Municipal Reform," Journal of American Studies 1972 6(1): 19-39
  • Kurland, Gerald. Seth Low: The Reformer in an Urban and Industrial Age (1971) 415 pp.
  • Low, Benjamin R. C. Seth Low (1925).
  • Swett, Steven C. "The Test of a Reformer: A Study of Seth Low, New York City Mayor, 1902-1903," New-York Historical Society Quarterly (1960) 44#1 pp 5–41
  • Topper, Joby, “College Presidents, Public Image, and the Popular Press: A Comparative Study of Francis L. Patton of Princeton and Seth Low of Columbia, 1888–1902,” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 28 (2011), 63–114.

External links

  • Seth Low Biography
  • Seth Low Quotes
  • Mark Twain and Seth Low Speak
  • Citizens Union
  • Green-Wood Cemetery Burial Search
  • Works by Seth Low at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Seth Low at Internet Archive
Academic offices
Preceded by
Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard
President of Columbia University
Succeeded by
Nicholas Murray Butler
Political offices
Preceded by
James Howell
Mayor of Brooklyn
1882 – 1885
Succeeded by
Daniel D. Whitney
Preceded by
Robert A. Van Wyck
Mayor of New York City
January 1, 1902 – December 31, 1903
Succeeded by
George B. McClellan, Jr.
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