New Yorkers Who Held Power and Made History in Congress

By Tim Martinson, HM Summer Political Journalism Intern
Photo: Top from left: Daniel S. Dickinson (Library of Congress), Geraldine Ferraro (United States Congress), Emanuel Celler (Library of Congress), Hillary Clinton (United States Congress)
Bottom: Robert F. Kennedy (Library of Congress), Roscoe Conkling (National Portrait Gallery), Shirley Chisholm (Library of Congress), Robert F. Wagner (United States Congress)

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For the upcoming midterm elections this November, New Yorkers will go to the polls to elect 26 representatives to the House and one Senator to be sent to Washington, D.C. to represent us. With this in mind, it could help to reflect on men and women elected by New Yorkers in the past who have displayed leadership in the legislature. The Empire State has been quite influential in American history, particularly thanks to hosting the most populous city in the country. Many of the members of Congress elected by New Yorkers to serve on Capitol Hill have held powerful positions and left lasting legacies on the state and nation. New York has been the birthplace of 5 presidents, 11 vice presidents, 3 Supreme Court chief justices, and 15 associate justices (Moore 2021; “Vice President” 2021; “Justices 1789”). While these executive and judicial leaders are themselves notable, this article will focus specifically on legislative leaders. Incumbent Senator Chuck Schumer, currently serving as the first Senate Majority Leader from New York, is one that may come to mind for many. However, New York has been the home of many famous politicians throughout American history. The stories of some have been compiled here.

The two houses of Congress each have presiding officers that are chosen by the bodies to oversee proceedings. The House of Representatives is presided over by the Speaker, who is elected at the beginning of each two-year Congress. The Senate is technically presided over by the Vice President, but the President pro tempore is chosen to preside in their place (“About”). The President pro tempore is traditionally the longest continuously serving member of the majority party. However, agenda-setting power in the Senate is vested in the Senate Majority Leader (“The Legislative Process”). Two New Yorkers have been elected Speaker of the House. John W. Taylor served as Speaker during the 16th and 19th Congresses in the early nineteenth century, while Theodore M. Pomeroy served a unique one-day term as Speaker at the very end of the 40th Congress on March 3, 1869 (“List of Speakers”). Only one US Senator from New York served as President pro tempore of the Senate, Federalist John Laurance for part of the 5th Congress in December 1798 (“About”).

Perhaps two of the most noteworthy legislators from the Empire State were Democratic Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. Both ran for United States President during their terms in office: Kennedy in 1968, before his assassination (“Robert Kennedy” 2009) and Clinton in 2008 until losing the primary election to Barack Obama. Clinton, who had the additional distinction of being a former First Lady, later won the Democratic nomination in 2016, only to lose to fellow New Yorker Donald J. Trump (Caroli 1998). 

Sen. Robert F. Wagner served for over twenty years during the Great Depression. A strong ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wagner helped write and sponsor several important pieces of legislation for the New Deal programs (“Robert F. Wagner” 2022). Perhaps chief among his bills was the Social Security Act, which created the Social Security system and unemployment insurance. He also helped write the National Labor Relations Act, later called the “Wagner Act” that codified workers’ rights. Mr. Wagner’s efforts led to what could be described as some of the most impactful reforms in American history (“Robert F. Wagner” 2022). 

In the House, Rep. Emanuel Celler left his own enduring legacy through his work on American immigration policy and his support for the Civil Rights Movement. During nearly fifty years in office, Mr. Celler lobbied for immigration reform in the United States, influenced in part by his Jewish immigrant roots and the Holocaust (“Celler”). He sponsored the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which removed national origins from consideration in immigration (Sussman 2019). Mr. Celler, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also pushed for civil rights legislation, helping write the 1957 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts and the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Lyons 1981).

Some landmarks in the advancement of women in US politics were achieved by New Yorkers. Shirley A. Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress, was elected in 1968 to represent part of Brooklyn. She helped found the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus in her tenure. Ms. Chisholm continued making history with her 1972 presidential campaign, when she became the first African American woman to run for the nomination of a major modern party (“Chisholm”). 

Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro became the first woman nominated for Vice President by a major party, appearing on the 1984 Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of incumbent President Ronald Reagan, who won the electoral vote 525-13 (“United States” 2015). Ms. Ferraro has a strong legacy in her own right, outside the ‘84 election. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Queens and served in Democratic Party leadership as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus—a position also held by Shirley Chisholm (“Ferraro”).

At one point in time, New York was home to one of the most powerful Republican Party bosses. In the late nineteenth century, Sen. Roscoe Conkling garnered power within the Republican Party as a leader of the Radical Republicans and later the Stalwart faction after the Civil War. He was known for forming rivalries with other politicians, particularly within his own party. Mr. Conkling favored the central bureaucracy’s system of political patronage and rejected civil service reforms pushed by other members of his party. He served as a strong ally of Republican presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and his “political acolyte” Chester A. Arthur (Gephardt 2013). During his time in the House and Senate, Conkling helped write and support the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. He also opposed the racially discriminant Black Codes, which had spread across the South undoing post-war reconstruction efforts (Gephardt). One of Mr. Conkling’s political rivals was Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose support for civil service reforms went against Conkling’s political machine and preferred bureaucratic system of patronage. His relationship with Hayes’s successor, James A. Garfield, was similarly sour, going so far as to resign from the Senate in protest after failing to block one of Garfield’s appointments. Although he tried running for re-election, his political momentum had ceased and he never made it back to Congress (Mitchell 2022). 

One final New York politician worth mentioning was Sen. Daniel S. Dickinson. A Democrat in the time of the Civil War, he broke from the party and supported the Union as a politician, becoming known as a “War Democrat.” Before joining the Senate, Mr. Dickinson served as the first president of the City of Binghamton (“Daniel S. Dickinson”). He supported the idea of popular sovereignty (allowing each state to decide whether to be a free or slave state) and helped pass the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War and prolonged slavery in the US. Abraham Lincoln considered him as a running mate in the 1864 presidential election, though he would be passed up for fellow Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee (Smith 2020). 

It is clear that New York has left its mark on the United States in the past and continues to do so. Between politicians reaching historical landmarks and authoring legislation with long-lasting effects felt to this day, New York seems to have developed a reputation for electing powerful leaders in political history. This fall, New Yorkers will have another chance to uphold this reputation and elect worthy legislators to the upcoming 118th Congress.

Tim Martinson is a political science major from Merrick, New York on Long Island. After finishing his undergraduate, he plans on continuing to graduate school for a Master’s degree. Tim volunteered for State Senator John Brooks’ re-election campaign in 2018. He is currently a member of the Binghamton College Democrats and is a public affairs show host at WHRW. He also participated in a Happy Medium summer internship in the summer of 2022. Tim has an interest in political history and likes to play video games and learn new things in his free time.


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