The Great Citizen, Mayor Abram S. Hewitt
( Originally Published 1921 )
Our third Mayor, Abram S. Hewitt, when he married Miss Cooper in 1855, came to live at No. 9 Lexington Avenue and made it his home for nearly fifty years. His brilliant record as a student in Columbia College, from which he graduated in 1842, gave promise of the great career which was fully realized in a long life devoted largely to public service. As a member of the firm of Cooper, Hewitt & Co., in which he was associated with his brother-in-law, Edward Cooper, at one time Mayor of this City, he had the direction of the Trenton Iron Works, which had been founded by Peter Cooper, and became a pioneer in the iron and steel business of the United States, managing its affairs with conspicuous ability, and furnishing one of the earliest and most successful demonstrations of the possibility of harmonizing the interests of capital and labor. He was an earnest advocate of technical education for wage-earners and took an active part in the establishment of Cooper Institute, which was throughout his life one of his most absorbing interests and the chief object of his liberality. He was an insatiable reader and profound student of history, and as a speaker was both eloquent and convincing. During his twelve years of service in Congress he was one of the most influential members of the House and displayed high qualities of statesmanship. His international reputation as a scientific student of iron and steel production was recognized by the Iron & Steel Institute of England, which presented him with the Bessemer Gold Medal in 1890. He became prominent in City politics in 1871, when, upon the downfall of Tweed, he was made Chairman of a committee of citizens to reorganize the Democratic party, which had Tilden as its advisor, but while he was a staunch Democrat, he refused to follow his party on the silver issue and fought against it with tongue and pen. When nominated as Mayor in 1886, he said:
"No pledges to any party or any set of men have been asked. Nor under any circumstances would I make any other pledge than that which I now fully give, that, if elected, I will discharge the duties according to law to the best of my strength and ability, keeping in view the interest of the whole people without distinction of party and class, and in strict conformity to the legislation affecting the Civil Service and the just demands of the great mass of the people for the removal of abuses which impose taxation without corresponding benefits."
These pledges were fully redeemed during his two years of office, but his greatest service to the City was performed as a member of the Rapid Transit Commission which projected and secured the construction of the first underground railroad on Manhattan Island. To commemorate Mr. Hewitt's services in this connection, the Chamber of Commerce presented him with a gold medal and elected him an honorary member.
A philanthropist in the broadest and truest sense of the word, Mr. Hewitt was especially interested in education and rendered invaluable service as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Institution ; as a Trustee of Columbia University and Barnard College, of the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions, and it has been well said of him that :
"Great as were his intellectual qualifications, his heart, more than his brain, often controlled his conduct. Character was his standard of success. He was a worker for humanity, and has made the world better worth living in for those who come after him. He acquired breadth of vision and insight which penetrated beneath the popular opinions and policies of the hour, and advocated principles which are of universal application in all time. He adopted as his motto, Be just and fear not.' It was the keynote of his character and actions. The example of a long life of intense activity and usefulness is his legacy to posterity."
Advancing years only added to the earnestness of his purpose, the keenness of his intellect and the esteem in which he was held by his fellow men, and the whole city echoed the sentiment which Richard Watson Gilder so beautifully expressed in the lines to "The Great Citizen" which were read at his funeral :
"Mourn for his death, but for his life rejoice,
Dauntless in youth, impetuous in age,
Talents and wealth to him were but-a trust
This his chief aim to wake, in every man,
He saw the evil, as the wise must see,
Following the truth, he led his fellow men,—
By being great, he made the city great,—
So shall the city win a purer fame