Mayor Cadwallader D. Colden: Would grandpa be proud?

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Mayor Cadwallader D. Colden
In office: 1818-1821

The most remarkable thing about New York City having a mayor named Cadwallader Colden is the fact that he was not even the most famous New Yorker named Cadwallader Colden.

That distinction goes to his grandfather, an altogether different Cadwallader Colden than his grandson. I like him because he was a rather fascinating Renaissance man, despite the fact that he was also pro-British, stridently hated among the American rebels and the type of man that would have thrown me in jail on sight.

Ole Cadwallader was an Irish physician who came to the American colonies in 1710 (at age 22) to practice medicine. Establishing his practice in Philadelphia, he later came to New York and in 1743 wrote a now seemingly obvious treatise drawing a connection between New York’s unsanitary conditions and its frequent outbreaks of yellow fever.

Elder Colden (at right) became governor of the New York colony in 1760 and later sparked ire among beleaguered New Yorkers, who burned his effigy over enactment of the Stamp Act. Colden ultimately represented the losing side of the American Revolution, and due to that, his other accomplishments are often overlooked — he was the first in America to write about Newtonion scientific theories, and the first colonist to act as ambassador to the Iroquois Confederacy, the union of five Native American tribes.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Colden died in September 1776, the year of the conflict that would run the British out forever. He might be scandalized to know that his grandson, born in 1769 in Flushing, Queens County, would become a model American. (Jr’s father Cadwallader Colden II was more concerned with governing the family’s lush 3,000 acre estate in Queens and remained essentially neutral during the Revolutionary War.)

Born in the trappings of wealth, Cadwallader III was shipped off to London for a proper education and returned to New York in 1785 to become a lawyer. With his high class connections, he quickly acquired an impressive client roster, in particular Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, assisting in their control of ferry services in New York harbor. He became New York district attorney twice, 1798 and 1810.

Colden was a different man from his ancestor; he even fought against the British as a colonel of volunteers in the War of 1812. Surprising given his lineage, Colden was for many years considered a Federalist, the party of Alexander Hamilton. However, he considered as one of his closest friends a rather unlikely ally — anti-Federalist DeWitt Clinton.

How they met probably had less to do with political alliances than membership of a rather notable society — the Freemasons. In fact, Colden and Clinton were members of the city’s most influential — and still active — Holland lodge. Within a few years, this affiliation would be political poison, with anti-Freemason candidates characterizing the secret organization as above the law and morally corrupt.

Colden’s ascent into the mayor’s office caught him within some serious political crossfire. Cadwallader’s friend DeWitt became the governor of New York in 1817, making him the head of the Council of Appointments, which selected a mayor for New York, back in the heady days before elections. Clinton would use his influence to install his friend in the job in 1818, but not without Colden sustaining a little political injury.

One evening, Colden was in Albany and was invited inside a tavern for a glass of wine. He suddenly realized he was in a room filled with members of Tammany Hall, political enemies of the Federalists. Colden had once been a member of Tammany — during their less politically active days — and in 1793 had even spoke to an assemblage at Saint Paul’s Church.

He was now on the opposite side. Immediately they pounced, urging him to not seek the mayor appointment. But no, he cried! “He exclaimed energetically against the trickery, declaring that he had not asked for the office of Mayor, but would only accept it if offered.” When Clinton did grant him the job, Tammany made sure to make life difficult for him. For the entirely of his three one-year terms, Colden became a pawn in the battle between Governor Clinton and the ascendant Democratic machine.

Colden began work in the spanking new City Hall, the fourth mayor for the new building after Jacob Radcliffe, John Ferguson and, of course, DeWitt Clinton. (Below: looking up Broadway, circa 1819)

He prided in his city’s budding sophistication and made civility and safety his chief concerns. First on his agenda: all those pigs running around. “Our wives and daughters cannot walk through the streets of the city without encountering the most disgusting spectacles of these animals indulging the propensities of nature.” Animals were penned up and steep fines charged to butchers who kept pigs unproperly supervised.

Colden took a crack at the city’s deeper seeded problems. Indeed he was governing over a growing city, population 123,706 as of 1820. With a big city came big city problems — poverty, crime, homelessness.

The New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, lead by the mayor himself, investigated prison conditions throughout the young nation to come up with a local solution. At the time, the state penitentiary lay in today’s West Village in a place called Newgate Prison. One of their findings was a need to separate younger delinquents from the adult criminals held there.

Colden proclaimed, “It must be obvious that under such circumstances it would be in vain to expect that their punishment will improve their morals: it can hardly fail to have a contrary effect.”

The mayor set the stage for an innovative experiment, New York’s House of Refuge, in an arsenal at Broadway and 23rd Street, essentially a reform school, built to incarcerate children age 16 and younger. It opened in 1825 (after Colden left office) with six boys and three girls as its pupils, many of them guilty only of homelessness and essentially kept here until adulthood. By the early 1830s, the House of Refuge would receive over 1,600 teenagers.

Below: The House of Refuge in 1832 (pic courtesy NYPL)

Like many mayors to follow, Colden also clamped down on liquor sales, even carrying around a ‘red book’ to notate violations and overheard complaints of local tavern owners.

Naturally, Colden would rally behind Clinton’s most ardent cause, the Erie Canal. It opened in 1825, after Colden left office, but his support did indeed pave the way for New York to become, in his own words, “one of the greatest commercial cities in the world.”

He was aristocratic, class-oriented but ultimately kind, they say. A reminiscence in the 1843 journal New Mirror quotes this certainly apocryphal story about the mayor’s ‘kindness’. One rainy night on his way to a dinner party, Cadwallader stepped up to a ‘hackman’, a type of carriage taxi, for a ride. The driver, “who had some old grudge against Mr. Colden,” rudely sped away, leaving the passenger on the curb. He jotted down the cab driver’s number and summoned him to City Hall.

“Poor Pat (for of course he was Irish)” as the article indicates, “went up the stairs, trembling at the fate which awaited him. When the mayor demanded to know why he was treated so rudely, the driver proclaimed,”you see I looked in your face, and , faith, you looked so like a jontleman I drove twice before that never paid me, I was afraid to thrust him agin!” Colden laughed, exclaiming, “Your wit has saved you this time!” and excused the driver.

Aligning with Clinton eventually became a bad idea. When Clinton was turned out of the governor’s office, so too was Colden. But he still remained popular with New Yorkers, becoming a U.S. congressman, then a member of the New York state senate, in 1825.

In later life, he engaged in a couple unusual endeavors. The first was the construction of the Morris Canal in northern New Jersey, a conveyor of coal that operated for over a century. And in 1830, he briefly indulged in the hobby of horse racing, taking over the Union Course in Woodhaven, Queens. The closest you’ll get to visiting Colden’s racetrack is visiting the Union Course tavern, the oldest tavern in the borough. Colden died in 1834, in Jersey City.

You can find Cadwallader today right across the street from the Tweed Courthouse, in statue form, on the front of the Surrogate’s Courthouse. He’s joined there by many prominent New Yorkers, including fellow mayors James Duane, Abram Hewitt, Philip Hone and his friend DeWitt Clinton.


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