Monday, April 13, 2020

Blast From the Past: Albany's 'Democratic' Regency


Once upon a time, Albany was not just New York's capital, but a beacon of national power -- for a 'regency' of politicos rather than the general public.
[The Albany Regency was] the nickname of a powerful group of Democratic leaders in New York State, who controlled the party machinery there and acted together for influence in State and national affairs about 1820 to 1854. The name was given because the members of the Regency either lived near the capital or held offices which made the city their headquarters. Its origin and essence as an aristocracy of “bosses” lay in the system of frequent elections among a democracy, which puts nominations into the hands of professionals who will be paid in some shape, creating a permanent standing army of political managers. 
The Regency was the unofficial staff of this army and was larger than in other States from the imperial field which New York offered for great careers; but it could not have perpetuated its power but for the means of rewarding friends and punishing enemies given it by the “spoils system” (a name derived from the saying of one of its members, William L. Marcy, in 1833, that “to the victors belong the spoils”). While personally upright, and strong opponents of corruption, they held firmly to this, the very spring of corruption: the giving or taking away of offices, the use of public contracts for printing or other work or supplies, etc. 
That this was its cement is shown by the fact that after the bitter factional split of 1848 .... had given the other party this patronage to use against it, the Regency was reduced in a few years to unorganized individuals. The members of course kept themselves in high or profitable positions according to their capacities or preferences; several alternating between State and national preferment, but never neglecting the former basis even in the latter service. The earliest and greatest leader was Martin Van Buren, State attorney-general, United States senator 1821-28, resigning to become governor of New York, Jackson's secretary of state, Vice-President, President. 
Others were William L. Marcy, State comptroller, judge of the New York supreme court, United States senator 1831, resigning 1833 to become governor of New York, Polk's secretary of war, Pierce's secretary of state; Silas Wright, congressman, State comptroller, United States senator 1833-44 (succeeding Marcy), resigning 1844 to become governor of New York; John A. Dix, State secretary of state, United States senator 1845-49, Buchanan's secretary of the treasury, again governor of New York 1872-74; Benjamin F. Butler, Van Buren's attorney-general and acting secretary of war; while others held only State offices, — Azariah C. Flagg, State secretary of state and afterward twice comptroller; Edwin Croswell, State printer, editor of the Albany Argus, leading Democratic organ; Benjamin Knower, State treasurer; and others held no offices, — Dean Richmond, Roger Skinner, Peter Cagger, Samuel A. Talcott, etc. 
Afterward Samuel J. Tilden, Daniel Manning and others of high stamp, by sagacity of central management, preserved in a manner the traditions of the older group, though they never had its patronage to use for discipline.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920