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James Couzens. [left to right] C. C. Dill, Owen Young, and James Couzens, before the Senate Interstate Commerce Commission. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98142).

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Couzens, James (26 August 1872–22 October 1936), businessman, mayor of Detroit, and U.S. senator, was born in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, the son of James J. Couzens and Emma Clift, an immigrant couple from England. Raised in a stern Presbyterian household and a lower-income family that lived on the “muddiest” street in town, young Couzens’s education was capped by two years of bookkeeping study at Chatham’s Canada Business College. He worked as a newsboy and then stirring smelly, boiling vats for his father, who had parlayed his skills as a soapmaker and salesman into ownership of a small soap-making factory. Displaying an assertive independence, which contemporaries noted that he had inherited from his stern-willed father, young Couzens set off for Detroit to test his mettle in the larger world and in 1890 was taken on as a railroad car–checker for the Michigan Central. Five years later he became an assistant bookkeeper for Alex Malcomson’s coal business, which brought him into contact with a mechanical tinkerer and automobile pioneer named ...

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Hewitt, Abram Stevens (31 July 1822–18 January 1903), iron manufacturer, congressman, and mayor, was born near Haverstraw, New York, the son of John Hewitt, a machinist and cabinetmaker, and Ann Gurnee. After attending the public schools of New York City, Abram, at the age of thirteen, entered the Grammar School of Columbia College. Three years later he won a scholarship to Columbia College, where he ranked first in his class in academics. Upon graduation from Columbia in 1842, he began the study of law while also teaching mathematics at Columbia’s grammar school. At this time he tutored ...

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Koch, Edward Irving (12 December 1924–01 February 2013), Congressman and New York City mayor, was born in Crotona Park East in the Bronx to Louis and Joyce Silpe Koch, both Polish Jewish immigrants. The second of three children, Koch encountered the reality of downward mobility when his father’s furrier business failed in 1931, forcing the family move from comfortable quarters in the Bronx to Newark, New Jersey, where he later attended South Side High School. Koch never forgot having to cadge for tips in the family’s hatcheck concession in a local restaurant. As the family’s fortunes improved they moved to Brooklyn, and at age sixteen Koch entered City College of New York, a traditional springboard for immigrant children to American success....

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Fiorello H. La Guardia Photograph by Louis Fabian Bachrach, 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107850).

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La Guardia, Fiorello Henry (11 December 1882–20 September 1947), U.S. congressman and mayor of New York City, was born in New York City, the son of Achille La Guardia, an army bandmaster, and Irene Coen. Shortly after La Guardia’s father joined the American forces dispatched for Cuba in 1898 he fell ill, probably from the “embalmed beef” sold to the military, and was discharged from the army. He then took the family to Europe, where La Guardia, barely eighteen years old, won a post with the American consular service. On the Continent La Guardia experienced firsthand the intense ethnic hatreds and class antipathies of Central Europe; he also acquired fluency in five languages and a strong ambition to return to the United States....

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Lindsay, John Vliet (24 November 1921–19 December 2000), U.S. representative and mayor of New York City, was born in Manhattan, the son of George Nelson Lindsay, an investment banker, and Florence Eleanor Vliet. Lindsay's father, the son of an immigrant English brick manufacturer, rose to the chairmanship of American Suisse Corporation (a subsidiary of Credit Suisse). His mother was a Wellesley graduate. Lindsay attended the Buckley School for boys in Manhattan and went to prep school at Saint Paul's in Concord, New Hampshire. He graduated in 1940 and entered Yale University that same year. He graduated from Yale with a B.A. in history in 1943. During World War II, Lindsay served in the U.S. Navy in Sicily and the Pacific, leaving with the rank of lieutenant in 1946. He then attended Yale Law School. After graduating in 1948, Lindsay joined the New York law firm of Webster, Sheffield, Fleischmann, Hitchcock, and Chrystie. In 1949 he married Mary Harrison; the couple had four children. Like many other northeastern, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), Lindsay gravitated toward progressive Republican, reformist politics. In 1951 he helped found Youth for Eisenhower, and in 1955 he joined the Justice Department as Attorney General ...

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Quincy, Josiah (04 February 1772–01 July 1864), Federalist congressman, Boston mayor, and president of Harvard, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Josiah Quincy, Jr., a lawyer and revolutionary pamphleteer, and Abigail Phillips. Quincy’s father died in 1775, leaving him to be raised by his mother and grandfather, Colonel Josiah Quincy. At age six he was sent off to Phillips Academy, where he submitted to a regimen of Calvinist doctrine and corporal punishment. In 1786 he enrolled at Harvard, where eleven Phillipses and ten Quincys had preceded him. There he became a Unitarian and class orator....

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Washington, Harold (15 April 1922–25 November 1987), politician and mayor of Chicago, was born on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, the son of Roy Lee Washington, a stockyard worker, and Bertha Jones, a domestic worker. Harold Washington attended a Benedictine boarding school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, until the age of six. He was then enrolled in Chicago public schools but dropped out of high school after his junior year to take a job in a meat packing plant. His father, who had become an attorney and a precinct captain for the Democratic party in Chicago’s largely African-American Third Ward, secured a job for Washington at the Chicago office of the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1941 he married Dorothy Finch. They had no children and divorced in 1950....

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John Wentworth. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-51923).

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Wentworth, John (05 March 1815–16 October 1888), editor, congressman, and mayor of Chicago, was born in Sandwich, New Hampshire, the son of Paul Wentworth, a storekeeper, and Lydia Cogswell. His grandfather John Wentworth served in the Continental Congress and signed the Articles of Confederation. Young Wentworth attended first local public schools and then a series of private academies before entering Dartmouth College. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1836 he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he gained employment as an agent for the ...

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Kenneth S. Wherry. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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Wherry, Kenneth Spicer (28 February 1892–29 November 1951), businessman and politician, was born in Liberty, Nebraska, the son of David Emery Wherry, a storekeeper, and Jessie Comstock. When he was eight months old, his family moved to Pawnee City, Nebraska, where his father opened a farm implement, furniture, and undertaking establishment. Wherry graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1914 and studied law and business at the Harvard School of Business Administration. He served in the Naval Flying Corps during World War I but did not go overseas. After reading law privately, he won admission to the Nebraska bar in 1931....

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Wood, Fernando (14 June 1812–14 February 1881), mayor of New York City and congressman, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Benjamin Wood, a merchant, and Rebecca Lehmann. His father’s business failures led to an insecure childhood. In 1821 the family moved to New York City, where Wood attended a private academy until age thirteen. Leaving home, he supported himself in New York and elsewhere with a variety of low-paying jobs. In 1831 the tall, handsome, well-mannered young man married Anna W. Taylor, the daughter of a moderately successful Philadelphia merchant. The following year the couple returned to New York City where, his father having died, Wood invested his wife’s dowry in business ventures to support his wife, mother, and younger siblings....