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Nelson W. Aldrich. Drawing by Arthur Dove, published in Success, 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54138).

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Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth (06 November 1841–16 April 1915), U.S. senator, congressman, and businessman, was born in Foster, Rhode Island, the son of Anan Aldrich and Abby Burgess, farmers. Having received a modest education in East Killingly, Connecticut, and at the East Greenwich Academy in Rhode Island, Aldrich was by age seventeen working in Providence. Eventually a large wholesale grocery firm, Waldron, Wightman & Co., hired him as a clerk and bookkeeper. His career there was briefly interrupted in 1862 by service with the Tenth Rhode Island Volunteers garrisoning Washington, D.C. After contracting typhoid that same year he returned to Providence and, by 1866, had been elevated to junior partner at Waldron, Wightman. He married Abby Chapman that year; the couple would have eleven children. His wife was of independent means, but Aldrich insisted on accumulating a fortune on his own account and gradually did so. He worked his way up to full partner at Waldron, Wightman, was a director of the Roger Williams Bank by 1872, and by 1877 was president of Providence’s First National Bank. He also headed the city’s Board of Trade in these years....

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Brice, Calvin Stewart (17 September 1845–15 December 1898), U.S. senator, railroad builder, and financier, was born in Denmark, Ohio, the son of William Kilpatrick Brice, a Presbyterian minister, and Elizabeth Stewart. He received his earliest education at home and in the public schools of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, where his family moved after his third birthday. When Brice turned thirteen years old, his parents placed him in the preparatory program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where because of his father’s limited means he had to work his way through school. He required only one year of preparatory work before being granted admission as a freshman....

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Chauncey Mitchell Depew. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90755).

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Depew, Chauncey Mitchell (23 April 1834–05 April 1928), public speaker, railroad president, and U.S. senator, was born in Peekskill, New York, the son of Isaac Depew, a shipowner, merchant, and farmer, and Martha Mitchell. After graduating from Peekskill Academy in 1852, Chauncey entered Yale where he forsook the Democratic faith of his father and sided with the antislavery forces of the newly created Republican party. After receiving his diploma in 1856, young Depew began the study of law in the office of a Peekskill attorney and was admitted to the bar in 1858. That same year he was a delegate to the Republican State Convention, and in 1862 and 1863 he served in the New York state legislature, becoming a leader of the GOP caucus during his second session. In 1863 he was elected New York’s secretary of state, a post he held for two years. Throughout this period he developed a reputation as a campaign speaker who could sway a crowd in support of the Republican cause. In an age when oratorical skill was a prerequisite to political success, his gift for speaking proved an invaluable asset....

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Guthrie, James (05 December 1792–13 March 1869), secretary of the treasury, U.S. senator, and businessman, was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, the son of Adam Guthrie, a planter and politician, and Hannah Polk. Educated at the McAllister Academy in Bardstown, he subsequently worked on Mississippi River flatboats. After reading law with ...

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Hayne, Robert Young (10 November 1791–24 September 1839), U.S. senator, governor of South Carolina, and railroad president, was born on the Pon Pon rice plantation in the Colleton District of South Carolina, the fifth of fourteen children born to William Hayne, a planter and one of the youngest members of South Carolina’s 1790 constitutional convention, and Elizabeth Peronneau. Owing to the large number of children in the Hayne family, a formal education for Robert was not feasible. After his initial years of educational preparation under Mr. William Mason and Dr. John Smith in Charleston, Hayne studied law in the office of State Senator ...

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Mahone, William (01 December 1826–08 October 1895), soldier, railroad executive, and politician, was born in Monroe, Virginia, the son of Fielding Mahone, a merchant, and Martha Drew. After studies at Littletown Academy, William entered the Virginia Military Institute in 1844. He graduated in 1847 and afterward taught at the Rappahannock Academy. At the end of the 1848–1849 academic year, he was appointed surveyor of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. He remained in this post until 1852, when he was appointed chief engineer of the Fredericksburg and Valley Plank Road. He left that company one year later to accept the post of chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad; in April 1860 he was elected president of the company. In 1855 he married Otelia Butler. Only three of the couple’s thirteen children reached maturity....

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William G. McAdoo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93473).

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McAdoo, William Gibbs (31 October 1863–01 February 1941), railroad executive, secretary of the treasury, and U.S. senator, was born in Marietta, Georgia, the son of William Gibbs McAdoo, Sr., and Mary Faith Floyd. His father served in the Tennessee state government and as attorney general in Knoxville before the Civil War. In 1863 his parents moved to Georgia intending to reside on his mother’s family plantation, but bleak prospects forced them to stop in Marietta and then settle in Milledgeville, the old state capital and McAdoo’s childhood home. During the last years of the war, McAdoo’s father fought in Georgia as a Confederate officer. Like many southerners McAdoo’s parents never recovered financially after the war, but they tried to replace material advantage with intellectual pursuits. His mother published several romantic novels of the Old South, and both parents wrote essays and book reviews for the local press. McAdoo’s father struggled to find work in Milledgeville before securing a professorship at the University of Tennessee in 1877 and moving the family back to Knoxville....

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Rollins, Edward Henry (03 October 1824–31 July 1889), U.S. senator and congressman, and railroad executive, was born in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, the son of Daniel Rollins and Mary Plumer, farmers. Rollins attended the Franklin Academy in Dover, and the Berwick Academy in Maine, but lack of funds prevented him from enrolling at Dartmouth College. Aside from a brief tenure as a Rollinsford common schoolteacher, he worked as a drugstore clerk in Concord, New Hampshire, and Boston until 1847, when he bought his own establishment opposite the statehouse in Concord. Two years later he married Ellen Elizabeth West; they had five children....

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Leland Stanford. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93136).

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Stanford, Leland (09 March 1824–21 June 1893), corporation head, governor of California, and U.S. senator, was born Amasa Leland Stanford in Watervliet, New York, the son of prosperous gentry parents Josiah Stanford and Elizabeth Phillips. Josiah Stanford was an innkeeper, landowner, and bridge and road contractor; he was also a strong supporter of the Erie Canal. Leland (he rarely used his first name) Stanford attended local schools until adolescence and then was educated at home under the tutelage of his mother. Legend has it that young Stanford was a voracious reader; books do not seem to have been of much interest to him in later life. In his late teens, Stanford attended the nearby Clinton Liberal Institute and, later, the Cazenovia Seminary. He read law with the Albany firm of Wheaton, Doolittle and Hadley and was admitted to the bar in 1848. That same year Stanford traveled to Port Washington, Wisconsin, to begin his legal practice. Stanford married Jane Lathrop ( ...

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Van Winkle, Peter Godwin (07 September 1808–15 April 1872), lawyer, businessman, and politician, was born in New York City, the son of Peter Van Winkle, a merchant, and Phoebe Godwin. Van Winkle attended local elementary and secondary schools. One of his interests was writing poems, which were published in several literary journals. In 1831 he married Juliette Rathbun of Paramus, New Jersey; they had six children, three of whom died in infancy. Van Winkle remained a widower after his wife’s death in 1844....

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David L. Yulee. Photograph from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-111-B-4411).

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Yulee, David Levy (12 June 1810–10 October 1886), politician and businessman, was born David Levy on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the son of Moses Elias Levy, a timber dealer and merchant, and Hannah Abendanone. The young Levy studied at the Norfolk Academy in Virginia but was forced in 1827 to move to Florida, where his father had acquired large tracts of land in hopes of founding an agricultural colony for European Jews. The elder Levy had decided his children should support themselves, a condition apparently met by his son’s taking up residence on a plantation the father owned in Micanopy. David Levy subsequently read law in St. Augustine and, after being admitted to the bar in 1832, practiced there for several years....