“The Return of the Prodigal”

September 12, 1903

William A. Rogers

“The Return of the Prodigal”

Alcohol; Business, Liquor; Mayoral Elections; New York City, Government/Politics; New York City, Mayors; Symbols, Tammany Tiger; Tammany Hall, Charles F. Murphy; Temperance Reform;

Low, Seth;

New York City;

(The Liquor Dealers' Association has fired the first gun in New York's municipal campaign by sending out letters to 30,000 voters opposing the renomination of Mayor Low.)

In 1901, reformer Seth Low was elected mayor of New York City on a "fusion" ticket backed by Republicans, independents, and anti-Tammany Democrats.  When this cartoon appeared in 1903, Mayor Low was seeking a second term.  His opponent was Congressman George B. McClellan Jr., who had been persuaded to enter the race by Tammany boss Charles Murphy, and who campaigned against Low's support of Sunday closing laws and strict liquor regulations.  Here, the Tammany Tiger, wearing a money belt, welcomes back a personification of the liquor dealers and other Democrats who left the fold in 1901.  In the eyes of the cartoonist, the combined opposition of these two corrupt and powerful groups--Tammany Hall and the Liquor Dealers Association--is ample reason to support Low's campaign.  In November, however, McClellan defeated Low, 55.5%-44.5%.

Seth Low was born in Brooklyn in 1850, the son of Abiel Abbot Low, a prosperous tea and silk importer.  Seth Low traveled widely in his youth, and was educated at Brooklyn Polytechnic School and Columbia College, graduating in 1870.  At his father's request, Low quit law school and joined the family firm, working his way up from warehouse supervisor to partner, until the business went bankrupt in 1887.  Low's grandfather had earlier organized the Brooklyn Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and in 1878 the younger Low founded the Bureau of Charities of Brooklyn. He led a crusade against corruption and inefficiency in the public charities, establishing a registry bureau to eliminate welfare fraud. 

In 1880, Low became active in politics, campaigning for James Garfield, the Republican presidential nominee, and advocating municipal reform and home rule as president of Brooklyn's Young Republican Club.  In 1881, Low won election to the first of two two-year terms as mayor of Brooklyn.  As mayor, he replaced the patronage system with merit appointments (civil service reform), overhauled the public schools, and moved the city closer to home rule.  His endorsement of Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential race undermined Low's standing within the Republican Party, and he chose not to seek reelection in 1885.

Having served as a trustee of Columbia College since 1881, Low became the college's president in 1890.  At Columbia, Low promoted graduate education, reorganized its professional schools, established the University Council and the School of Nursing, forged affiliations with the Teachers College, Barnard College, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and oversaw Columbia's move from 49th Street to Morningside Heights in 1892.  During his tenure as Columbia's president (1890-1901), Low also served as an arbitrator in labor disputes, a member of the Rapid Transit Commission, and a relief organizer during a cholera epidemic in 1893.

Low helped draft the charter consolidating Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx into the single political entity of New York City.  In 1897, he ran on the Citizens' Union ticket in the first mayoral contest under the new city charter.  He lost to Tammany Democrat Robert Van Wyck, but out-polled Republican Benjamin Tracey (Henry George, the Labor Party candidate died four days before the election).  In 1901, scandals involving Tammany Hall produced a public backlash that carried Low into the mayor's office over the Tammany Democrat, Edward Shepard.  

During his two-year tenure, Low oversaw reform of the police department, public schools, and city finances; the start of construction on a subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn and the Pennsylvania tunnel to Long Island; and electrification of the New York Central Railroad. He brought public attention to the problem of crowded and dirty tenements.  Low also sought to expand civil service reform, but his opponents charged him with favoring Republicans.  As stated above, he was defeated for reelection in 1903.

In 1905, he joined the board of trustees of the Tuskegee Institute, becoming chairman in 1907.  He continued working to improve labor-capital relations, serving as president of the National Civic Federation, a member of the Colorado Coal Commission, and president of the New York Chamber of Commerce.  He died in 1916 at his home in Bedford Hills, New York.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Return of the Prodigal”
April 19, 2024

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