Monday, January 7, 2013

Following Up: The Fate of Governor Sulzer

Governor William Sulzer was inaugurated on January 1, 1913. As we learned from the account of his inauguration that appeared in the New York Sun, Sulzer marketed himself as the "People's Governor"--"Plain Bill." For his inauguration, he wore his fedora instead of a top hat and insisted on walking to the Capitol instead of riding in the traditional horse-drawn carriage.

In his inaugural address, Sulzer pledged to serve all the people:
Grateful to the people who have honored me with their suffrages, I enter upon the performance of the duties of the office without a promise, except my pledge to all the people to serve them faithfully and honestly and to the best of my ability.
On the afternoon of the inauguration, Sulzer and his wife opened the Executive Mansion, which they renamed the "People's House," to all and for three hours stood in a receiving line greeting hundreds of visitors, many of whom arrived on foot. Mrs. Sulzer, who described herself as a suffragist, told the press that she didn't intend to employ a social secretary or a housekeeper and she would be "at home informally to any one who desires to call on two or three afternoons a week."

Despite the popular and populist beginning, before his first year in office was over, the "People's Governor" was accused of campaign finance corruption. He was impeached by the State Assembly in August 1913, convicted by the State Senate after a month-long impeachment trial, and removed from office on October 17, 1913. 

An article by Matthew L. Lifflander in the Spring 2010 issue of New York Archives Magazine describes Sulzer's political career before becoming governor:
With the support of the powerful Tammany political machine led by the infamous Richard Crocker, Sulzer had been elected to the State Assembly from New York's Lower East Side in 1889 at the age of twenty-seven; three years later he became the youngest man in history to be elected Assembly speaker. In 1894 he went to Congress and served with considerable distinction for eighteen years as an innovative legislator, a Tammany stalwart, and a great orator, rising to become chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
On the second day in office as governor of New York, Sulzer "challenged Tammany's complete control of political patronage and began investigating corruption in state government." Lifflander's article is recommended reading for anyone interested in exploring the question of whether Sulzer's impeachment "was good government, or just payback for defection from the Tammany machine." Lifflander has also written a book on the subject of Sulzer's impeachment, which is available as an ebook from SUNY Press.

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