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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont: The Populist of Bellevue Avenue

by Andrew Lavoie, Providence College
©Copyright 2015. All rights reserved by the author.

The “Brilliant Belmonts” of Rhode Island and New York were the “most wonderful triumvirate in the history of this country” wrote the Anaconda Standard in 1895.[1] Born into extreme wealth and privilege, Perry, August and Oliver Belmont dominated America fiscally, politically, and socially. The traditional viewpoint, of both contemporaries and modern historians, has always centered on the idea that Perry served as the leading political figure of the three while August maintained their father’s banking business and Oliver simply existed to maintain the prestige and power of the Belmont’s in society. This idyllic picture of the three brothers existing in harmony, each as a master of his particular sphere, could not be farther from the truth. In reality, the three Belmonts were rivals who competed with each other throughout their lives for the affection of their father and the recognition of the nation. The one brother that attempted to transcend those generalizations was Oliver. Oliver has often been depicted merely as a socialite who was far more comfortable in the elite circles of Newport and New York. This depiction fails to fully capture the essence of Oliver and how contemporaries recognized Oliver at the peak of his popularity. Oliver Belmont was an engaged member of society who, despite his familial struggles, continuously sought recognition for his own personal achievements.

Although many of these attempts were met with failure, Oliver found an unlikely ally in William Jennings Bryan. Oliver used Bryan as a political aid to try his own political machinations and, as a result, he actually unseated his brothers and became the premier member of the Belmont family. The tensions between Oliver and his family drove him into the arms of an all too eager William Jennings Bryan, however, in doing so Oliver irrevocably alienated himself from the remaining Belmont family members. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was not merely a socialite but rather he was a politically active, socially motivated individual who, in his own time, many viewed as an early progressive who campaigned in favor of creating a new society far different from the gilded shores of Newport or the busy streets of New York.

There has been little written on the life of Oliver Belmont. Historians have always looked past Oliver and instead focused their scholarship on his brothers, father and even Alva, his wife. Oliver often appears in these texts only as a secondary figure and never really as a subject of real historical analysis. He often appears as a minor figure in texts about the various elite society, especially those regarding Gilded Age Newport, however, even in those texts many aspects of his life are never mentioned. In this way most research has corroborated the idea that Oliver represented nothing more than a petulant child who spent his family’s money lavishly while exerting very little of his own influence in America. These texts only chronicle a very small part of Oliver’s life. Oliver’s brief career as a politician has generally always been overlooked, as has his relationship with William Jennings Bryan. Therefore, the best accounts that actually do recognize the role of Oliver in his society are contemporaneous accounts published by his peers. One of the few accounts that recognized the significance of Oliver’s career was Mitchell Charles Harrison’s New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men.

Written in 1902, this encyclopedia provides the best contemporary account of Oliver’s life, obviously without any knowledge of his later life and death. The article mentions that “in 1898-99 he rose to the foremost rank of national leadership” of the Democratic Party. Furthermore it identifies Oliver as being the “advocate of harmony in the party which had been rent and distracted” and a major supporter of “tariff revision, income tax, inheritance tax, public ownership of public works, direct legislation, anti-imperialism” and any other position he felt most important to “restore the Democratic party to power.” This work highlights another area where Oliver separated himself from his two brothers. This encyclopedia is not merely a list of the richest or most powerful men that lived in New York in 1902, but rather it is a record of those men who enacted significant change to try and improve the lives of the average New York citizen. The many editions of the encyclopedia detail a large number of individuals who lived during the turn of the century. Despite the plurality of socialites discussed, Oliver Belmont is the only member of his family who is given his own chapter. This clearly signifies that, to his contemporaries, Oliver represented far more than affluence. He represented an active attempt by the upper echelons of society that meant to improve the plight of the different social classes. This account also mentions that Oliver’s later political career was forced upon him and that he would have preferred to remain a politically active citizen rather than run for public office. Even though no other selections survive to corroborate this concept, it would question Oliver’s motives for political activity. This selection seemingly places the legacy of Oliver Belmont among some of the earliest progressives in American society. Even though there is very little evidence to support further research in this vein, the existence of this material suggests that his contemporary society recognized Oliver for far more than his parties and extravagance.[2]

The only other location where Oliver is mentioned frequently is in scholarship on his wife Alva. In much of this research though Oliver is often given an unfavorable depiction or merely described as a passive figure who did little to influence his world. In historian Sylvia Hoffert’s Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: An Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights, Oliver is given a less than favorable depiction as Hoffert attempts to prove that Alva’s progressive viewpoints only were made manifest after Oliver’s death, seemingly as a liberation from the oppressive lifestyle of a domestic housewife. Oliver himself left no extensive collection of letters or personal journals for historians to analyze. August Belmont Jr. compiled the largest collection of letters and documents pertaining to the family, which are still currently housed at Columbia University. The major problem with this is that it largely reflects Oliver’s relationship with his family and any mention of him seem to vanish shortly after 1890 with the death of August Belmont. The only medium through which Oliver Belmont’s political opinions and life have been preserved is the newspapers.

Newspapers tracked the actions of the Belmonts, and other wealthy families of the age, with the same diligence of modern tabloids. These families were clearly the royalty and celebrities of their era and stories of their lavish parties and opulent wealth sold wildly across the country. Oftentimes the topics of these articles ranged from reports on the latest balls to social commentary on how divorce displayed the consistently degrading morals of the upper classes and how this degradation represented a corrupting influence in American society.[3] All Belmonts were subject to the intense scrutiny of the press however, Oliver, unlike his brothers, made the active decision to try and use the press to his own advantage. The largest problem when using this medium is that most of the materials used were designed to be released to the public. Therefore all sources have to be considered with more scrutiny than private correspondence due to their inherent penchant for personal censure. Most of the articles published were done so with the expressed permission of Oliver and allowed him to purposely cultivate the materials that he wanted to be released to the public. In this way, these newspapers can be both beneficial and problematic. On the one hand, they accurately represent the image that Oliver meant to promote to the public and the methods he used. What is lost, however, is the personal motivations behind many of Oliver’s decisions. Because Oliver kept no surviving diary or personal memoirs, it is nearly impossible to now know for certain what his motivations were during this period of his life. Therefore, there are very few definitive facts that historians can use to represent Oliver’s life.

Oliver’s young life represented a perfect synthesis between his various familial backgrounds. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was born on November 12, 1858, to the famed banker and political figure, August Belmont. His mother, Caroline Slidell Perry Belmont, was the daughter of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. The third of three sons, Oliver struggled to garner the attention and favor of his father. He existed largely in the shadows of his older brothers, Perry and August. Perry became a powerful figure in the Democratic Party. He served as a member of the House of Representatives and as a foreign minister to Spain during the Spanish-American War. August Belmont Jr. followed largely in his father’s footsteps. He served as the President of August Belmont & Co. after his father’s death in 1890 and he followed in his father’s passion for thoroughbred horse racing by building the track which still hosts the annual Belmont Stakes. Oliver did little throughout his life to garner any acclaim from his father and oftentimes his father only mentioned Oliver in passing or to express his frustration with his son. The narrative of Oliver’s early career only reinforced his position within the family. Unlike his brothers, who were both educated at Ivy League institutions, Oliver decided to follow the legacy of his mother’s family and entered the United States Naval Academy. After graduation, Oliver had a very brief career as a midshipman in the Navy until 1881.

Oliver’s name carried power within the ranks of America’s elites. On his father’s side he bore the Belmont surname, which immediately linked him with enormous wealth and political power. His mother, however, gifted him with a name known throughout the country as a major American hero: Oliver Hazard Perry. Few dynastic families have had the same influence in shaping America as the Perry family. Since the days of the Revolution, they had always stood as symbols of American independence and courage. Arguably, the most famous member of the illustrious family was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Born in Kingston Rhode Island in 1785, Commodore Perry gained national recognition and fame for his defense of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. The “Hero of Lake Erie,” he was the first man in history to ever lead a victory over an entire British naval squadron and he immediately became a national hero.[4] Although Oliver Perry died of disease at a relatively young age, his memory and legacy remained untarnished with the public. His maternal grandfather also was a legendary figure in American history. Matthew Perry gained his fame through his highly publicized and documented journey to Japan in 1854. Oliver inherited a sense of adventure and a love of the sea from this side of his family and he always tried to support his mother’s family just as much as his father’s.[5]

Oliver actively tried to promote the legacy of his Perry heritage. In 1896, he was one of the founding members of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution. Oliver gained admittance to the organization because of his relationship with Captain Raymond Perry, father of Matthew and Oliver Perry, who served as a privateer during the American Revolution. Founded in 1876, the Sons of the American Revolution originally intended to be a supplementary organization meant for the younger relatives who were denied access to the Society of Cincinnati. The Sons of the Revolution still meant to serve only the elites of society and not as a progressive group meant to spread the opportunity to the masses. Future generations would eventually strive to create such a group and the Sons of the American Revolution were founded in 1889 in order to counterbalance that demand and to recognize all individuals who could claim relations to the American Revolution. Oliver was the first of his family to join the society and it was not until 1902 that Perry would also join its ranks.[6] It would seem as though this organization only supports the concept that Oliver was little more than an elitist socialite.

In the summer of 1881 Oliver spent time in Bremen, Germany after his resignation from the United States Navy. It was during this period of his life that the cracks that alienated him from his family started to emerge. Despite his father and brother’s vocal and frequent protestations, Oliver began to court Sara Swan Whiting. Even though his father claimed to be working only in his son’s best interests, August’s frustration boiled over when he exclaimed that his son might as well become a farmer.[7] August, Oliver’s brother, wrote to Oliver trying to support their father’s viewpoint. This particular letter, Oliver claimed, angered Oliver so much that he refused to write back to his brother for some time.[8] August Sr. also had his sons frequently report on the whereabouts and activities of Oliver and, when Oliver had joined his father’s company to work, August Jr. often commented to his father on Oliver’s work ethic. He often noted that, although Oliver worked diligently, he lacked the speed and organization to be successful in the field.[9] August Sr. still made sure to keep his youngest son comfortable throughout his life. August consistently offered to pay off Oliver’s many debts including those to various casinos.[10] Even though Oliver never really lived up to his father’s standards he still supported and cared for his son however when he died there was no member of the family left that truly cared for or wanted to support Oliver. When August Belmont Sr. died in 1890, the three brothers had to reassess their roles in the family. While Perry continued on as a political behemoth and powerful member of the Democratic Party, August and Oliver waged a war over their father’s banking empire. Eventually August, with the support of Perry, became president of the company and quickly forced Oliver out of the business.[11] Oliver never forgave his brothers for this slight.

The best way to fully comprehend Oliver’s relationship with his family is to understand how his brothers, August and Perry, impacted his life. As previously mentioned, August and Perry Belmont were famous in their day for their roles in the fields of banking and politics, respectively. What is more interesting to this study is how their relationships with Oliver evolved over time. In reading the family correspondence, it is clear that Perry remained aloof from his family. Even though he was in constant correspondence, he clearly was not as close to his younger brothers when the three were growing up. Both August and Oliver, when writing to their father, frequently asked him to convey their regards to Perry. There exists very little correspondence between the three brothers. August, however, had a much deeper relationship with Oliver in their younger years. Oliver frequently wrote to August during his time at school and the two enjoyed a relatively stable relationship. All of that changed with Oliver’s trip to Bremen and subsequent courtship of Ms. Whiting. One of the major reasons why Oliver grew so angry at his family over their consistent rejection was because of their immediate acceptance of August Jr.’s engagement to Elizabeth Hamilton Morgan. Oliver never harbored any true resentment towards Elizabeth herself, but he never understood why his family could accept August’s relationship, yet simultaneously deny his own wishes at attaining the same happiness. The strained relationship between Oliver and his family on grew more contentious as the three brothers grew further apart.

Oliver spent the later years of his life actively distancing himself from his family. In order to maintain his life style, Oliver became increasingly reliant on aid and support given to him from the Vanderbilt family. In an 1899 article, The Evening Times, explicitly mentioned that during his political career Oliver actively tried to distance himself his family and, although he had an extremely generous allowance from the Vanderbilt’s, he genuinely wanted his own to establish himself as an entity beyond the influence of his family.[12] Oliver needed a well-known and powerful political entity that would offer him any political validation. With the wealth of the Vanderbilt’s behind him, Oliver became one of the premier political donors in the late nineteenth century. Oliver found the perfect candidate in William Jennings Bryan. Thus one of the most unlikely of political alliances was born.

Oliver Belmont evolved drastically throughout his life. If Perry Belmont inherited his father’s political gravitas and August Belmont inherited his father’s business acumen then Oliver Belmont inherited his father’s ability to adapt rapidly to a variety of situations. His willingness to abandon his past beliefs in order to attain future benefits set him apart from his brothers. August Belmont willingly changed his last name and religion in order to fit in better with American society and to further his own ambitions. Although Oliver never had to resort to such drastic measures, he showed his resourcefulness in a few remarkable situations. Just as his father adapted in order to fit into American society, Oliver consistently reinvented himself in his various attempts to elevate himself. Contemporaries recognized that Oliver, at his core, displayed many of the “traits which had made his ancestors noteworthy.” These traits included the Belmont traits of “determination, aggressiveness, a sense of justice and chivalry, and the faculty of using wealth and social leadership.”[13] These traits inspired Oliver to follow his education and join the military. In 1898, at the onset of the Spanish-American War, Oliver petitioned the American government to give him command of a naval vessel that he promised to finance.[14] President McKinley himself heard Oliver’s pitch but, despite being initially favorable towards the proposition, ultimately decided against the idea.[15] This rejection ended up being the final rejection before Oliver turned his eyes towards politics. Even though Oliver attempted to enter as a combatant into the Spanish American War, it does not necessarily mean that he shared in America’s imperialistic fervor. Other individuals, like Bryan himself, volunteered for military service during the war but it was only in the aftermath that they became disillusioned with American foreign policies.

In 1899, William Jennings Bryan busily prepared for his second presidential campaign and his first as solely a candidate for a major national party. In 1896, Bryan ran as the nominee for the Democratic Party, however, he also garnered the nomination for the Populist Party. By 1900, the Populist Party drastically waned in strength and instead Bryan appeared solely as the Democratic candidate. Bryan’s campaign centered on an anti-imperialist policy that condemned the annexation of the Philippines at the conclusion of the Spanish American War and general overhaul of the American economy and its reliance on gold and instead using silver. Yet, two of the major problems facing Bryan in this campaign were the financial weakness of the Democratic Party and Bryan’s inability to gain much support in the Northeast, an area with tremendous political power and influence. In this way, Oliver Belmont and his “Vanderbilt money” provided the ideal ally.[16] Belmont became the primary agent for “Bryan-ism” in the east. Belmont often held gatherings at his Newport mansion and in New York City during Bryan’s candidacy to rally support amongst the wealthiest sections of society. Although these parties were well represented by a wide variety of the leading families, including the Vanderbilts, the atmosphere oftentimes bordered on irreverent and Belmont’s own struggles as a public speaker limited their effectiveness. At one such party, after Oliver rejected a request to speak, a chorus began amongst those gathered that called for Oliver’s nomination for the presidency while the band played “Silver Threads Among the Gold.”[17] In this way, though Oliver proved very capable at raising the crowds to try and gain support for Bryan in the East, his own previous reputation as a socialite never allowed for him to be taken seriously amongst this higher society. Oliver clearly lacked the political nuance and gravitas to command this class, unlike his brother.

Bryan and Belmont dealt with disappointments earlier in their life and, by 1900, they used those defeats as an impetus for their own personal change. The 1896 nomination of Bryan rocked the political world and the upper echelons of the Democratic Party grew nervous of the growing power of the Populist Party. Party members, like Perry, grew increasingly concerned with the prospect of Bryan and his Populist Party supplanting the Democratic Party. Just as Bryan’s 1896 campaign had failed because of the spilt between his supporters, the Democratic Party feared future splintering within their own ranks. Their solution was to systematically absorb the major components of the Populist Party and to incorporate them into the Democratic Party. For idealist and longstanding party officials, like Perry Belmont, this merger represented a systematic defeat for the party. Others, like Oliver Belmont, recognized the immense benefit of the merger and they made the active decision to support the Party’s new stance, no matter the cost.

Although Belmont was the most vocal supporter of Bryan among the upper classes, there were others who offered varying amounts of support to Bryan’s cause. Andrew Carnegie, steel industrialist and business tycoon, had a longstanding relationship with Bryan prior to and during the election period. Unlike Belmont, Carnegie never truly lent his full support to Bryan’s campaign. Carnegie shared in Bryan’s vision of an anti-imperial America and, like Bryan, he strongly advocated for independence in the Philippines. Despite this, Carnegie and Bryan often clashed over how best to enact change. Bryan told Carnegie that he was unwilling to condemn the peace treaty with Spain on the grounds that it could “win the fight but destroy our cause.” Bryan further wrote that he knew that he could ease Carnegie’s fears over the issue but only if he felt that the people of the country were totally in favor of it, otherwise he knew that such an action was little more than political suicide.[18] Carnegie never fully offered his support in the manner of Oliver Belmont but the temporary alliance between Bryan and Carnegie proved that all members of society could benefit from alliances with Bryan and that Bryan made the conscious effort to appeal to the upper classes of society. Bryan knew that one of the major reasons that he had lost the previous election, beyond dissent within his own party, was the fact that McKinley had a much larger financial support group that included Andrew Carnegie. Oliver Belmont provided a fundamentally different level of support for Bryan. Belmont represented an elite individual who genuinely agreed with Bryan’s political viewpoints.

When William Jennings Bryan decided to ally himself with Oliver Belmont he did so with an eye to his own political future and not necessarily in order to aid the career of the burgeoning aristocratic politician. Bryan knew the importance that economic issues would have in the race and, with the support of a man of Oliver’s stature, he could help sell his viewpoints to the populace. In the late nineteenth century, few subjects were more important to voters than the economy.[19] Even though Bryan’s own viewpoints were clear on the issue, having a member of powerful family like the Belmont’s added a different layer to Bryan’s message. Furthermore, because most Presidential campaigns of the time period often projected various messages to appeal to a variety of interest groups a supporter like Belmont drew in support from crowds that Bryan himself struggled to garner support from, namely wealthy businessmen from the Northeast.[20]

Even though supporting William Jennings Bryan was Oliver’s first major foray into the political sphere, he had actively been editing and writing a newspaper during this period that he used to advocate for a “destruction of plutocracy” and to espouse the messages and viewpoints of Bryan.[21] Even though this paper, titled ”The Verdict,” did not have an incredibly long publication period, the fact that Oliver was known throughout the country for its publication and the contents of the newspaper stand in stark contrast to the elite socialite that most tend to believe. The effects of The Verdict reverberated across the country. The Kansas Agitator published an article in 1899 that highlighted how Belmont’s paper pushed for ideals of direct legislation and a destruction of the monopolies and trusts that had corrupted politics in the country.[22] The ideals that The Verdict preached argued largely against the established aristocracy to which Oliver belonged. This raises the question as to why Oliver would have published such a polemic newspaper condemning the elite social groups that he had been associated with so often.

It is difficult to truly know Oliver’s actual motives and his real political aspirations especially in regards to Bryan’s campaign. Because he left no personal memoirs, it is hard to distinguish whether or not he truly believed in Bryan’s messages or whether he simply meant to use Bryan to further his own career. In a public letter, dated March 25, 1899, Oliver released correspondence to be distributed across the country in which he explicitly outlined all of his political beliefs and tenets. In the dispatch, he also openly mentioned specific topics that he did not agree with Bryan but he does give reasons for these discrepancies. Oliver claimed that he was “a gold man” who would “unhesitatingly support free silver” if that was the platform of the Democratic Party.[23] Despite this, Oliver proceeded to illustrate why he believed that Free Silver no longer deserved to be the main issue of the election but rather the necessity of the Democratic Party to fully unite under one candidate. Oliver offered no particular candidate, although in analyzing the viewpoints that he believed to be most important there was clearly only one man whom Oliver believed fit to run for office. Oliver wanted the platform of the party to attack the trusts that Oliver believed ran American politics. Along with this, he advocated for the institution of an income tax and inheritance tax, public ownership of railroads and other companies, the power for the people to veto any law passed by “corrupt Congresses,” direct election of Senators and United States Judges, reform in banking, an increase in the military, cutting down governmental expenditures, and the rejection of imperialistic expansion particularly in the Philippine Islands.[24]

The most important aspect of this letter is the fact that despite all the political views stated throughout the letter, Oliver thought the most pivotal aspect of the Democratic Party was that they become united under one solid candidate. In this way, Oliver proved himself to be as adaptive as his father and as politically aware as his brother. He understood that Bryan’s campaign in 1896 failed because of the fractured nature of the Democratic Party. Whereas the Republicans nominated one candidate with the support of the entire party, the Northern and Southern Democrats struggled to create a unified front to oppose them. Beyond this, the Populist Party refused to accept the Vice-Presidential candidate proposed by the Democrats for Bryan, thereby alienating a whole demographic of Bryan’s voting base. Oliver clearly saw Bryan as the best available candidate for the Democratic Party, but he knew that the only way victory could be achieved was if Bryan rallied all Democrats to his banner. Oliver knew that for this election there would have to be political compromises, hence his personal abandonment of gold in favor of silver. Therefore, it is very hard to say without any doubts what precisely Oliver Belmont’s political viewpoints were. He offered no substantial work like his brother’s The Plight of the Democratic Party. It is likely that, just as Presidential candidates provided a number of different messages to appeal to different voting groups, Oliver simply wanted to create a unified political stance centered on the most popular politician of his era, and he had no qualms to abandon his own political beliefs in order to maximize the appeal of his candidate.

In 1899 when Admiral George Dewey threatened the unity of the party when he decided to enter the race for President on the Democratic ticket. George Dewey, just like Oliver’s namesake, was a national hero who gained his fame and prestige as a military commander during the Spanish-American War. When Dewey return from the war cities across the nation proclaimed him a national hero and threw parades in his honor, with the largest held in New York and Boston. Dewey, more importantly, represented a figure that, despite his Roman Catholic wife, could stand as a more palatable candidate for the eastern Democrats. Dewey’s military career made him the perfect opposite to Bryan for he offered maximum national appeal while simultaneously offering very little in terms of his own political aspirations. He was a candidate that the eastern Democratic Party leaders could easily mold for he held very few strong opinions over politics, instead commenting that the believed it was the duty of the President simply to execute laws of Congress. Unlike Bryan, who many saw as an idealist and radical politician, Dewey represented a simple return to the status quo of politics where the President did very little and served merely as a puppet for his party.[25]

The importance of this issue to Oliver was made all the more evident in an April 1900 edition of The San Francisco Call. This issue of the call announced the candidacy of Admiral George Dewey as another Democratic candidate to oppose Bryan in the election. When asked by the reporters to comment on the situation, Oliver said that it was a shame and clearly an attempt to “disrupt the Democratic Party.”[26] Belmont further explained how he had always seen this particular scenario as being the biggest threat to Bryan’s ability to win and, when asked if Bryan had the could win the Presidency if Bryan won the nomination, Oliver answered saying only that the “Democratic Party” would win.[27] He made it perfectly clear that he saw Bryan not necessarily as the best candidate, but rather as most logical candidate to garner the support of the party as a whole and one whom groups like Tammany Hall would be willing to support.[28] Unlike his Perry, who wanted to shape the Democratic Party to fit his own views, Oliver wanted nothing more than to have the party “stand shoulder to shoulder in the coming campaign.”[29] Oliver’s fears over Dewey’s nomination proved eerily prophetic. In mid-1900 when Admiral Dewey finally abandoned his campaign, he immediately lent his support to McKinley’s campaign. Dewey was never mean to be anything more than a distraction to Bryan’s campaign and to try and eliminate support for Bryan.

The nomination of Admiral Dewey again provided a moment of discord between the two Belmont brothers. Shortly after Admiral Dewey announced his candidacy, a number of eastern Democrats vocalized their support for his campaign. Perry Belmont joined in these voices as a supporter of Dewey. Perry’s decision came largely at the derision of other popular Democrats who claimed that by this point in time Oliver best represented the “statesman of the Belmont family.”[30] This represents a marked change in national attitude, a palpable feeling that Oliver, equipped with his newspaper and having the support of Tammany Hall, became the most important member of the Belmont family and a potential Vice-Presidential candidate for Bryan.[31] Oliver’s political career, at this point, became strongly linked to the fortunes of William Jennings Bryan. His brothers, for one, wanted nothing more than to see Bryan and Oliver defeated in the upcoming election.

The battle between Oliver and his brothers often extended onto the national scene. In 1906, Colonel William D. Mann requested that Oliver subscribe to his newspaper, Town Topics. Colonel Mann wanted Oliver to invest $5,000 into the endeavor. When Oliver refused, Mann proceeded to publish a number of articles that, not only slandered Oliver, but were also exceedingly complimentary of Perry.[32] Furthermore, media outlets were frequently willing to condemn Oliver’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Alva. Perry Belmont, also a remarried divorcee, was largely spared of this highly public slandering.

The evolution of Oliver as a major figure in American politics began shortly after his introduction as a major supporter of Bryan in 1899. Oliver first stood up at the “Chicago platform dinner” and, though he read his speech with “great difficulty,” he clearly understood the implications of his actions.[33] He never became a prolific speaker, like Bryan, but rather he became extremely accomplished at using newspapers in order to spread his political messages across the country. Therefore, existing copies of his personal addresses are extremely rare and none have been recorded or republished. Despite this, there were numerous accounts that mention how, after he had come to power in the Democratic Party, he made speeches on his political viewpoints “in many States of the Union.”[34] Even though these speeches may be lost, their mere existence highlight the power that Oliver Belmont possessed within the Democratic Party during this time period.

Even though William Jennings Bryan lost the election, the campaign turned out to be a successful venture for Oliver Belmont. Suddenly his star appeared to be rising in the Democratic Party. Voters turned out in Oliver’s favor in 1900 as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. His successes politically were not limited to New York and Washington D.C. but rather his opinions were sought after on a national level. Publications like the Evening Times, San Francisco Call, and Omaha Daily Bee, became filled with the political musings and news regarding Oliver and his burgeoning career as a champion of Bryan’s message. For the first time in Oliver Belmont’s life, a single solid figure was there as a constant supply of support and a figure upon which Oliver could follow for guidance. Even in the turbulent atmosphere of politics, Oliver had a sense of stability and he rarely swayed from Bryan’s political beliefs. Oliver did not follow Bryan blindly, however. He wrote he felt it necessary that one not follow the original platforms laid out by Bryan consistently and that “reaffirmation” of those beliefs “cannot be turned into victory.”[35] Bryan’s defeat, in 1900, did not silence Oliver’s editorials, as he still frequently appeared as a political correspondent until 1902, when his political career took a turn for the worse.

Examining the newspapers that Oliver most frequently appeared in also illuminates another aspect of his evolving role in society. While stories of his personal life often appeared in newspapers all along the East Coast, particularly in New York and Washington D.C., his political viewpoints often spread into areas far more accepting of Bryan’s message. In particular, the San Francisco Call was especially important to Oliver Belmont and one of the publications where he wrote most prolifically. The Call had an adaptive streak very similar to Oliver Belmont himself. It began in 1856 as the Daily Morning Call and strongly supported the Republican Party. One of the most important advances for the Call came when John D. Spreckels bought the company from Charles M. Shortridge in 1897. Spreckel was an incredibly influential figure in the Southern California area and has been credited with renovating and creating the modern city of San Diego. [36] Under Spreckel’s leadership, the Call reached a larger audience than ever before. The Call increased in size publishing larger daily editions including a Sunday issue that began to print serialized novels and, in 1903, comics.[37] The newspaper, much like Belmont, was a politically dynamic piece of work that often changed its overall tone in order to best sell itself to the masses.

Not only did Oliver distance himself from his family through his political machinations he also moved further away through his social maneuvering. After his marriage to Alva Smith Vanderbilt in the early 1890s, he became far more connected with the Vanderbilt family. The marriage itself caused an uproar among local high society.[38] Alva had recently divorced William K. Vanderbilt and swiftly moved to marry Oliver, himself a divorcee. As an engagement present Oliver decided to dedicate his Newport mansion to Alva, although Alva required that Oliver convert the mansion from a hunting lodge that Oliver to a palace of luxurious living. Belcourt Castle, the name of the mansion, had long served as a location for Oliver to house his horses and to entertain guests to his “bachelor balls.”[39] Very few people were invited to the wedding and the two meant to keep it a covert affair.[40] Despite this, the mayor of New York City pronounced the marriage in a civil arrangement, as no clergy would consent to oversee the ceremony. Alva immediately noticed and noted some of Oliver’s more peculiar quirks. Foremost among Oliver’s passions at the time of their wedding, Alva noted his absolute adoration for horses. Belcourt Castle’s first floor served as little more than a glorified stable for Oliver’s horses and he even had several of his favorite horses stuffed and displayed by mannequins dressed as knights in full armor.[41] Furthermore, Oliver had a servant named Azar who would sleep outside his chambers in order to protect Oliver. Azar, a six-foot-six-inch tall Egyptian, famously wore resplendent military uniforms, a red fez, and often openly carried a long knife. [42] Despite this, the relationship between Oliver and Alva was not merely a marriage of convenience. There seemed to have been genuine affection between the two and, it seemed, Alva finally got her desire to marry for love instead of simply marrying for money.[43] The wedding also helped to cement Oliver within the Vanderbilt family. As part of the divorce, settlement between Alva and William the Vanderbilts agreed to pay Alva between $100,000 to $200,000 a year for her expenses.[44] This money not only served as yet another divide between Oliver and his family but it also provided Oliver the funds to engage in a number of different venues.

Alva herself has been noted for her influence upon the suffragette movement. Later in her life she used the wealth acquired through her various marriages and subsequent fame to become one of the loudest voices crying out for women’s rights. She helped produce and write a play that was staged at her own personal mansion, Marble House. Along with her role as a suffragette, she used her sizable fortune (Oliver Belmont left a sum of some $10 million to his wife after his death) to fund construction projects in New York and to keep living according to her incredibly high standards. She remodeled Oliver’s mansion, Belcourt Castle, and never remarried in deference to her late husband Oliver.[45] It is clear that there was certainly some dislike between Alva Belmont and Oliver’s two brothers. Contemporaries even claimed that Oliver’s marriage to Alva was the main force that drove Oliver from his family.[46] The two understood Oliver’s role in the family and Alva became determined to aid her husband’s “personal and political campaign against his elder and more famous brothers.”[47] Even after Oliver’s death Alva’s relationships with the two brothers never improved. When asked whether she wanted Oliver to be buried in the family plot in Newport she refused saying that they wanted to be buried “quite separate” from other members of the family.[48] Alva claimed to have been acting based on the wishes of Oliver but this still shows the divide that existed between the two branches of the Belmont family.

Oliver Belmont’s successes as a politician were incredibly short-lived. He only served in Congress for one term, from 1901 to 1903. New York restructured its Congressional districts in 1902 and because of the change, Tammany Hall decided to nominate another candidate in lieu of Oliver. Despite his popularity in 1900, there would be no political eulogy for Oliver Belmont and his defeat largely went unnoticed in many of the national circles. After his defeat, Oliver retreated back into his previous lifestyle as a socialite. This proved to be the final disappointment in Oliver’s life. He never reconciled with his brothers and, even in death, they remained estranged. Oliver died in June 1908 at the age of 49. At the time of his death, he was known only for his contributions as an elitist socialite. His brief stint as a congressman was largely dismissed as was his life-long pursuit for personal recognition.

Each of August Belmont’s sons left a lasting legacy on modern society. Perry’s memoirs and collections of political views are useful tools for to examine the views of the Democratic Party of the late nineteenth century. August’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly his involvement with thoroughbred horse racing and the establishment of Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes. Oliver’s standing legacy remains in the form of his various mansions that he had commissioned throughout his life and, in particular, Belcourt Castle. These legacies have only helped to further the idea that Oliver existed only as a member of Newport’s elite social class, whereas his brother’s had much more profound and effective lives. In this way, Oliver’s limited correspondence has largely led to the lack of scholarship and the propagation of this stereotype.

Oliver’s reputation as a socialite never truly abandoned him, even during his time in politics. As was previously stated, those parties that he threw in order to rally support for Bryan often strayed in their message and he largely failed to garner the support and funds that Bryan so desperately needed in order to overthrow the dominant Republican Party in the Northeast. This, combined with his record of newspaper editorials, shows that Oliver Belmont was only really prolific in areas where Bryan-ism already reigned supreme. Areas in the South, Midwest, and West, gladly published articles written by Oliver whereas his political messages were often ignored by those in New York and Washington. In this way, Bryan’s relationship with Oliver clearly tended to favor Oliver over Bryan. The relationship gave Oliver a sense of political legitimacy. It gave him an audience that was willing to listen and eager for change. Oliver Belmont did not disappoint in promising change to this disenfranchised crowd. In this way, Oliver’s social life greatly enhanced his ability to understand this growing voice in America.

From 1899 to 1902, few men were as prevalent and powerful in politics as Oliver Belmont. The story of his meteoric rise and subsequent fall from has never been studied nor has his legacy ever gained the same sense of prestige like his brothers. His life seemed paradoxical in nature. He was a socialite who transcended his social class and attempted to enact real political change in his world. Despite this, the only lasting legacy contemporaries recognized conveniently left out this period of his life, as it hardly fit in with the concept that he was solely a socialite with little concern for political activity. Throughout Oliver’s life, he was constantly compared to his brothers and, oftentimes in a negative manner. For that brief period of time, however, Oliver became the most politically active and conscious member of his family. This side of Oliver Belmont has often been ignored and left out of the record books. Therefore, scholars have never been presented with the image of Oliver Belmont as he actually was and instead have been fed the idea that he cared little for public life and instead only cared for himself and his social life. Oliver Belmont’s career as a politician was brief. His brief career highlighted the importance of party politics during the Gilded Age and how a family could be ripped apart because of political alliances. Oliver sacrificed his relationships with his family in order to stand for something more profound: real political change. This change was what scared his brothers and was the wedge that drove the family apart and ultimately what condemned Oliver’s political career.

Primary Sources

“A Union of Millions: Marriage of Mrs. Alva S. Vanderbilt and Oliver H.P. Belmont,” Pike County Press, (Milford, Pa.) January 17, 1896

Belmont Family Papers; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library

Belmont, Oliver H.P., “Free Silver Not the Great Issue,” San Francisco Call, March 26, 1899.

Belmont, Oliver H.P, “Belmont Scores Hill and Declares that the Reaffirmation of the Chicago
Platform cannot be Turned into a Victory for New York’s Ex-Governor,” San Francisco Call, Jul 6, 1900.

Belmont, Oliver H.P., “Mr. Belmont Says the Convention Will Get Down to Business To-Day and Lose No Time in Indorsing the Views of Bryan on Silver,” San Francisco Call, July 01, 1900.

Belmont, Perry, “The Plight of the Democratic Party” North American Review, Vol. 172, No. 531 (February 1901): 268-278. (accessed October 21, 2014)

“Brilliant Belmonts,” The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), December 27, 1895.

“Bryan and Dewey,” The Stark County Democrat, (Canton, Ohio) April 17, 1900.

“Dewey Says He Is In The Race To Stay: Certain to Be an Opponent of Bryan at Kansas City,” San Francisco Call, April 29, 1900.

Harrison, Mitchell C. New York States Prominent and Progressive Men, New York City: New York Tribune Press, 1900.

The Hawaiian Star, August 3, 1899.

Kansas Agitator, June 16, 1899.

“Mrs. Vanderbilt Married,” The Evening Star, (Washington D.C), January 11, 1896.

“O.H.P Belmont Dies; Was Ill Only Week,” The Washington Times. (Washington D.C.) June 10, 1908.

The Roanoke Times, January 12, 1896.

“Social and Personal,” The Times, (Washington D.C), August 2, 1900.

“Society Divorces in New York,” The San Francisco Call, May 21, 1899.

Sons of the Revolution: Rhode Island Society, Record Book of the Society of Sons of the Revolution in the State of Rhode Island, New York: Sons of the Revolution Press, 1902.

“Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryant Behalf,” The Evening Times, Washington D.C, May 1, 1899.

“Would Not Yield and was Roasted,” The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA.), January 20.

Secondary Sources

“About the San Francisco Call,” Chronicling America, Library of Congress, accessed November 29, 2014.

Adams, Austin, The Man John D. Spreckels, San Diego, Press of Frye and Smyth, 1924.

Beebe, Lucius, The Big Spenders, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1996.

Birmingham, Stephen. Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Cassady, Edward E. “Muckraking in the Gilded Age” American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1941), 134-141. (accessed October 20, 2014)

Davis, Deborah. Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009.

Foote, Stephanie. “Little Brothers of the Rich: Queer Families in the Gilded Age” American Literature, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Dec. 2007): 701-724. (accessed October 20, 2014)

Geidel, Peter. Alva E. Belmont: A Forgotten Feminist, New York: Columbia University, 1993.

Katz, Irving. August Belmont: A Political Biography, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Lynch, G. Patrick, “U.S Presidential Elections in the Nineteenth Century: Why Culture and the Economy both Mattered,” Polity, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn, 2002): 29-50. (accessed October 20, 2014)

Patterson, Jerry E., The Vanderbilts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Skaggs, David Curtis, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Spector, Ronald, Admiral of the Empire: The Life and Career of George Dewey, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Spinzi, Raymond E., “In Her Wake: The Story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont.” The Long Island Historical Journal (Fall 1993): 96-105.

Summers, Mark Wahlgren, Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Wilson, Charles Morrow. The Commoner: William Jennings Bryan, New York: Doubleday Press, 1970

Yarnall, James L., Newport Through Its Architecture: A History of Styles from Postmedieval to Postmodern. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2005.


[1] “Brilliant Belmonts,” The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), December 27, 1895.

[2] Mitchell Charles Harrison, New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men (New York: New York Tribune Press, 1900), 21.

[3] “Society Divorces in New York,” The San Francisco Call, May 21, 1899

[4] David Curtis Skaggs, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

[5] Harrison, Prominent Men, 22.

[6] Sons of the Revolution: Rhode Island Society, Record Book of the Society of Sons of the Revolution in the State of Rhode Island (New York: Sons of the Revolution, 1902).

[7] August Belmont Sr. to August Belmont Jr., October 1881.

[8] Oliver H.P. Belmont to August Belmont Jr., August 27, 1881.

[9] August Belmont Jr. to August Belmont Sr., September 16, 1890.

[10] August Belmont Sr. August Belmont Jr., March, 1884.

[11] Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” The Evening Times (Washington D.C.), May 1, 1899.

[12] “Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” The Evening Times (Washington D.C), May 1, 1899.

[13] Harrison, Progressive and Prominent Men, 21

[14] Ibid, 21.

[15] Ibid, 21.

[16] “Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” The Evening Times (Washington D.C.), May 1, 1899.

[17] “Social and Personal,” The Times, (Washington D.C), August 2, 1900. pg. 5.

[18] William Jennings Bryan to Andrew Carnegie, January 13, 1899. William Jennings Bryan Papers

[19] G. Patrick Lynch, “U.S Presidential Elections in the Nineteenth Century: Why Culture and the Economy both Mattered,” Polity, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn, 2002): 29-50.”

[20] Ibid. pg 36

[21] “Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” The Evening Times (Washington D.C.), May 1, 1899.

[22] Kansas Agitator, June 16, 1899, pg 3.

[23] Oliver H.P Belmont, “Free Silver Not the Great Issue” San Francisco Call, March 26, 1899.

[24] Ibid

[25] Ronald Spector, Admiral of the Empire: The Life and Career of George Dewey (Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1988)

[26]“Dewey Says He Is In The Race To Stay: Certain to Be an Opponent of Bryan at Kansas City,” San Francisco Call, April 29, 1900, pg. 14

[27] Ibid.

[28] The Hawaiian Star, August 03, 1899, pg. 3.

[29] Oliver H.P Belmont, “Mr. Belmont Says the Convention Will Get Down to Business To-Day and Lose No Time in Indorsing the Views of Bryan on Silver,” The San Francisco Call, July 01, 1900.

[30] “Bryan and Dewey,” The Stark County Democrat, (Canton, Ohio) April 17, 1900. Pg. 5

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Would Not Yield and was Roasted,” The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA.), January 20, 1906

[33]“Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” Evening Times (Washington D.C.), May 1, 1899

[34]Harrison, Progressive and Prominent Figures, 22.

[35] Oliver H.P. Belmont, “Belmont Scores Hill and Declares that the Re-Affirmation of the Chicago Platform Cannot be turned into a Victory for New York’s Ex-Governor,” San Francisco Call, July 6, 1900.

[36] Austin Adams, The Man John D. Spreckels, (San Diego, Press of Frye and Smyth, 1924).

[37] “About the San Francisco Call,” Chronicling America, Library of Congress, accessed November 29,2014.

[38] “Society Divorces in New York,” The San Francisco Call, May 21, 1899.

[39] “A Union of Millions: Marriage of Mrs. Alva S. Vanderbilt and Oliver H.P. Belmont,” Pike County Press, (Milford, PA) January 17, 1896.

[40] “Mrs. Vanderbilt Married,” The Evening Star, (Washington D.C), January 11, 1896.

[41] Raymond E. Spinzi, “In Her Wake: The Story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont.” The Long Island Historical Journal (Fall 1993): 96-105.

[42] Lucius Beebe, The Big Spenders (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1996), 171.

[43] Jerry E. Patterson, The Vanderbilts, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989).

[44] The Roanoke Times, January 12, 1896.

[45] Raymond E. Spinzi, “In Her Wake: The Story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont.” The Long Island Historical Journal (Fall 1993): 96-105.

[46] “O.H.P. Belmont Dies; Was Ill Only Week,” The Washington Times. (Washington D.C.), June 10, 1908.

[47] “Vanderbilt Wealth in Bryan’s Behalf,” Evening Times (Washington D.C.), May 01, 1899

[48] Alva Smith Vanderbilt to August Belmont Jr, July 8, 1908.

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