William Jay Gaynor: Libertarian Mayor of New York

Mr. Thornton is a businessman in Covington, Kentucky.

Tammany Hall faced a crisis in 1909. The Democratic Club had sniffed the political winds and knew that reform was in the air. It was one of those times when the urge is to "throw the rascals out" so voters were unlikely to look with favor on another mayor who was a creature of Tammany. The best vote-getter would be a man not associated with any politi­cal organization but well-known for a record of honest public serv­ice. This would, of course, mean dry times for Tammany; but rather a temporary drought than a repudiation at the polls that might have permanent effects. Yes, the best candidate would be one with a reputation for independence and incorruptibility. No political hack or Tammany puppet would do. And so it was that Judge Wil­liam J. Gaynor received the Demo­cratic nomination for Mayor of New York City.

William J. (baptized James but later changed to Jay) Gaynor was probably born in the village of Whitesboro, in central New York State, and evidence points to the correct date as being 1848, the year John Quincy Adams died. The two men had several things in common. Each was a man of integrity who somehow reached high office. Both were thin-skinned where politicians should be insensitive, worked alone instead of within a party, and were abrupt, forthright, and final in their con­clusions instead of compromising. Gaynor never said anything he did not mean and, more remarkable, he never meant anything he did not say. He was "one of those old-fashioned kind of men, who merely says in plain and peculiarly pun­gent and interesting English just what is in his mind and lets the consequences take care of them­selves." He defended his private life from intrusions and demon­strated his scorn of "public rela­tions" by his treatment of re­porters and newspapers. Writing to the National Publicity Bureau, he said: "You ask me to give an interview saying, ‘What would I say to the readers of 3,000 news­papers?’ I would say to them to be very careful about believing all they see in the newspapers." Gay­nor was a public figure with a "bent towards solitude, study, se­renity, contemplation, everything he summed up in the word ‘con­tentment.’ " He liked a good fight, but feeling that the office should seek the man, he never thrust him­self forward in pursuit of a place of honor and emolument.

Lawyer and Judge

Gaynor tried his hand at sev­eral things before settling on the legal profession where his keen mind and boundless energy brought him great success as one of the busiest of Brooklyn lawyers. He proved himself not only a colorful personality but an enemy of cor­ruption and oppression. In 1894 he became a New York Supreme Court justice. When he presided for the first time, in Brooklyn, "the courtroom was crowded with lawyers. The brisk pace he set caused a raising of eyebrows among the oldsters. Gaynor dis­patched the business on hand with such promptitude that court was adjourned at noon. Prosy counsel never had a chance.

"Thereafter it became an almost daily exhibition of speediness, thoroughness, unerring perception of the issues at stake, and sure application of legal principles leavened with common sense.

"For Gaynor, law (though not necessarily the law) was codified common sense. With pettifoggers, wasters of time, and slovenly pleaders he had no patience, and when these irritated him suffi­ciently he could grow rude and even insulting. His temper was un­certain. He worked prodigiously, and expected everybody else to do so. He never adjourned court for mere convenience, and the quan­tity of work he got through was impressive, yet his decisions stood up on appeal better than those of any other Supreme Court judge."

But Gaynor for all his bullying of counsel and crustiness toward wit­nesses "kept one thing foremost in his mind—the interests of the litigant.

" ‘It isn’t the lawyer I see in court, it’s the litigant behind him, pale with anxiety and eating up his substance in dragged-out legal expenses,’ he wrote. ‘It is for his sake that I use all my authority to compel a rapid determination of cases.’

"His preachment over and over again was:

"’A trial is a search for the Truth. A lawsuit is not a game for sharp advantage.’

After serving a fourteen-year term, Gaynor was re-elected in 1907 to a second term but he re­signed in 1909 to run for mayor of New York City. He won the election and then four years later, having been dropped by Tammany Hall, he was nominated for a sec­ond term by an independent citi­zens’ committee. He accepted the nomination on September 4 and on the following day sailed to England for a few weeks’ vacation. On September 12, while still at sea, he died.

Not Without Flaws

What makes Gaynor worth re­membering and knowing is not what he did, but what he was. Studying the man may just lead us to reflect on the nature of gov­ernment and its rightful role, the duty of public officials, and the responsibilities of private citizens. In an age when everything is be­coming politicalized, such ques­tions are especially worth ponder­ing.

The temptation, when writing about Gaynor, is to dwell on his dynamic personality, his colorful speech and writing. He was an effective extemporaneous speaker and letter writer par excellence and never found it necessary to hire a "ghost." Such habits as walking the five miles from his home in Brooklyn to City Hall each day marked him as somebody distinctly different from the run-of-the-mill public official. Such practices as quoting from ancients like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Cato set him apart from the ordinary politician. But it is one thing to read about a strong char­acter such as Gaynor, and quite another to have personal contact with him. Even those persons de­voted to the man acknowledged him as irascible, unstable, and impatient. And he became even more so after being shot during his first year as mayor by a dis­gruntled ex-employee of the city.

During the rest of his term his health deteriorated and there was an aggravation and intensifying of certain flaws in his character.

He shut his mind to the fact that reality did not match his inner vision and he became even more sensitive to all criticisms of him­self or his administration. And like all the rest of us, he was not always consistent. No, Gaynor was not a pleasant companion much of the time though with the right company he was a charming per- son and brilliant conversationalist. But as one newspaper declared, "We are aware of no provision in the constitution of the state or the charter of the city which asserts that the mayor of New York must be sweet-tempered and gentle and lovable. Mr. Gaynor is rather dif­ficult to get along with at times and we are glad that we have no personal relations with him; but these infirmities do not greatly concern the public welfare."

"Ablest Man in Public Life"

The late Albert Jay Nock once remarked that William Jay Gaynor "impressed me as by far the ablest man in our public life." What an extraordinary man he was, said Nock. "No one in my time under­stood so well the function of a public servant under a republic." Gaynor was, in Nock’s opinion, the last American, "the last, at any rate, in public life."

In 1912, the Superintendent of Public Instruction asked Gaynor for a message to be read to all the school­children of New York on the Fourth of July. He got it. Not a scream from the eagle, not a word of fustian about the Founding Fathers, or about how grand and glorious our civilization is, how good and wise we all are, and above all, how rich. Instead, about 800 words of a magnificent exposi­tion of what republican government really is, and what the people’s re­sponsibility for it is—sound, old-fashioned American doctrine, mostly in words of one syllable. It ended with this:

We must therefore be vigilant of every little approach to despotism, however little it may be. We must see to it that those whom we elect to office do not go outside of the laws, or set themselves up above the laws, and do as they please. It has always been the case through­out the world that the officials who did this did it on the plea that the laws were not good enough; that they could do better than the laws prescribed. Beware of all such offi­cials. We do not want officials who have any lust of power. We want officials who are very careful about exercising power. We want officials who are careful to exercise no power except that given to them by the people by their laws. There is no more dangerous man in a free country, in a democracy, than an official who thinks he is better than the laws. The good man in office should be most careful not to set a bad example or precedent for his bad successor, who will come along sooner or later.

On the duty of public men Gay­nor had this to say in a letter to a Philadelphia supporter:

Might I say to you that what we most need in this country now is for our public men and statesmen to discon­tinue loose talk, and speak with ex­actness on public questions, and with­out regard to what effect they may think the truth may have on their own future. To try to advance in the field of politics, and in the attainment of office, by loose or false statements, is despicable. What we need is that our public men, instead of loosely cry­ing out all sorts of evils, should put their finger exactly on the thing, and define it, and hold it up and show it, so that everyone of average intelli­gence may see it and understand it. Those who are not willing to do this should hold their peace.

Unyielding Sense of Duty

What sets Gaynor apart from most other public officials? At the time of his death, why did the "poor people of the East Side (turn) out at break of dawn to go down to the City Hall where his body lay"? He certainly "never flattered them, never played up to them," said Nock. He never tried to buy votes with promises of something for nothing and he never catered to the demands of minority pressure groups. Per­haps, said Mortimer Smith, "there were not a few who sincerely re­gretted the passing of an intransi­gent individualist, for the crowd sometimes covertly admires and envies the nonconformist." Or maybe Nock was right in answer­ing that the poor people under­stood in their own way that Mayor Gaynor, as an enemy of all injus­tice, was their friend.

Gaynor’s character and accom­plishments were unique. His ca­reer as a lawyer, judge, and mayor, observed Smith, was "a long record of almost startling variation from type. Among politi­cal hacks, dandies, venal spoils-men, and near morons who have served as Mayors of New York, he towers as a great unorthodox fig­ure, a man of enormous but er­ratic ability, a vivid and some­times frightening personality, and with an unyielding sense of pub­lic duty."

His seasoned, philosophical point of view was opposed to "the prag­matic sail-trimming and mere ex­pediency of the average politician. He was a libertarian, the last thoroughgoing, primitive Jeffer­sonian in our public life." Like Jefferson he had "sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man" and in everything he said or did he showed devotion to the Jeffer­sonian dictum: "That government is best which governs least." He was, then, "the perfect nonpoliti­cal type" who "abhorred pussyfooting" and liked to "air his opinions, even when there was no necessity to do so—or, especially when there was no necessity…."

Gaynor believed that govern­ment "was a convenient and neces­sary device for maintaining order and justice under law but should be little more." He maintained "that there are certain ills inher­ent in nature and associated liv­ing which cannot be cured but only endured, but that the worse ills are, in the words of William Graham Sumner, ‘the complicated products of all the tinkering, med­dling, and blundering of social doctors.’ " He believed that "men have the best chance of happiness and effectiveness when they are allowed the widest possible areas in which to function without re­straint…. He mistrusted large power and big government" and with Sumner felt that "when the state becomes too powerful, too mixed up in the affairs of its citi­zens, it becomes ‘the best prize of base struggles, and the most pow­erful engine by which some men may exploit others.”

Gaynor had little patience with the many reformers who were al­ways pestering him to "do some­thing" about the people whose be­havior they frowned upon. But Gaynor objected to "adding to the multiplicity of laws" and to "put­ting additional power in the hands of government. He was loath to give government the power of de­ciding whether a man could take a drink, read a book, play baseball on Sunday, see a play or moving-picture, or go to a prize fight."

Improvement a Slow Process

Mayor Gaynor believed the "principal duty of the police is to preserve the public peace, and keep outward order and decency." Lately Thomas writes about what Gaynor said to those who dis­agreed with him.

Directing his fire at those "socie­ties, and private enthusiasts, for the `suppression of vice,’ " who urged the necessity of extralegal methods to combat crime and vice effectively, Gaynor advised that they "read his­tory, and learn the supreme danger of trying to do all at once by the policeman’s club what can be done at all only gradually by the slow moral development which comes principally from our schools and churches….

"The notion that the morals of the community can be reformed and made better, or that government can be purified and lifted up, instead of being debased and demoralized, by the policeman’s club and axe, is so pernicious and dangerous in any gov­ernment, let alone a free government, that no one can harbor it whose in­tellectuals are not, as Macaulay says, ‘in that most unhappy of all states, that is to say, too much disordered for liberty, and not sufficiently dis­ordered for Bedlam.’

"It would be difficult to speak with forbearance of the strange pretense that the police could not enforce the law if they kept within the law them­selves…. Crimes and vices are evils to the community; but it behooves a free people never to forget that they have more to fear from the growth of the one vice of arbitrary power in government than from all the other vices and crimes combined. It debases everybody, and brings in its train all of the vices."

Themes that Gaynor never ceased to emphasize during his years on the bench were the defense of personal liberty, and opposition to the ill-advised attempts of meddlesome re­formers to remold social concepts and correct long-standing abuses by re­strictive legislation and force. Again and again he preached:

"The law knows of no greater folly than the notion that the police are the custodians or conservers of the pri­vate morals of the community, or could be made such with any safety whatever, or with any possibility of uplifting morals instead of debasing them. The moral growth of a com­munity depends on its churches, schools, and teachers, and the influ­ence of a healthy and comfortable home life, and not on the police."

Nothing good or lasting can be ac­complished in a hurry, he counseled over and over. In a speech before the New York Agricultural Society he would embody the fullest statement of his belief on this basic point:

"Some things that exist in the body politic which are wrong cannot be abolished offhand; we have to move slowly, so that all we can do under such conditions which society has created is to lessen them by degrees, little by little, here a little and there a little, until we gradually climb down to the level we want to reach, and do no injury to anybody. Everything is of slow growth, my friends, in this world, that is good…. In all things, material, moral, political, economical, the rule is slow growth. We must do the best we can, and if we find a thing wrong, we must wait a long period of time to fix it."

This truth, of course, was unpala­table to those who were calling for social realignments and reforms now….

Replacing Workers Who Quit

Gaynor’s rule with regard to labor disputes was to maintain law and order but to practice strict neutrality between the op­posing factions. This, of course, infuriated the employers who were accustomed to being treated with favoritism in their conflicts with employees. The exception to Gay­nor’s rule was when strikes were against the public welfare; this he refused to countenance and he consequently angered labor repre­sentatives. When, for instance, employees of the city threatened a ferry strike, Gaynor told them bluntly that if they did they would never work for the city again while he was Mayor. "Under civil service rules," explains Lately Thomas, "insubordination was grounds for dismissal; and no­body doubted that Mayor Gaynor, unpledged and unbossed, with a lifetime reputation of meaning just what he said, would if neces­sary execute the law to the letter. There was no ferry strike."

When the drivers of ash and garbage wagons did walk off the job, Gaynor treated them as men who had quit their jobs. He in­structed Commissioner Edwards to hire replacements and give them examinations that would meet civil service requirements. For a day or so garbage collection almost ceased and when the weather turned warm the health department warned of an immi­nent threat of disease. Gaynor held firm and to inquirers made his stand perfectly clear.

The city officials are not trying to "break" any "strike." The drivers of the ash and garbage wagons have quit their jobs and their places are being filled by others. They are not to be taken back. There is a great mis­understanding on this head. The com­missioner could not take them back if he wanted to. He can employ such men only from the civil service list. When men in the city departments quit they are struck from the payroll and their employment by the city is at an end. Their places then have to be filled from the civil service lists. None of these men can ever be em­ployed by the city again unless they undergo civil service examinations and get on the eligible list again. That the civil service board would ever permit them to get on the list again is not conceivable. None of them will get back.

Six days after the start of the walkout the movement collapsed, and the next day street cleaning opera­tions were back at normal.

After the strike ended, pressure was brought on Gaynor to take the strikers back, but he gave them no satisfaction. To the wife of a striker he wrote: "Your hus­band quit work without any cause whatever and I can do nothing for him. He treated the city very shabbily." "The notion that one should not treat ‘the city’—that is, the public, the entire community—shabbily," writes Thomas, "was novel then to some of its employ­ees, and remains novel still."

The Importance of Economic Freedom

Unlike some who profess a fond­ness for political liberty, Mayor Gaynor understood the importance of economic freedom. The social­ist scheme of placing all lands and instruments of production under the control of the state, said Gay­nor, "would by doing away with the incentives to individual free­dom greatly reduce production, and thereby increase poverty and distress…." And elsewhere he had noted that "the mother of ex­cellence in the world is competi­tion." He did not favor interfer­ing with business, either in the way of passing statutes to curb it or to expand it "because the right principle is that the law should leave all business free, with no fa­vor to anyone…." Monopolies, he understood, "were the artificial creation of government itself, evils which had their origin ‘in laws which we have passed in­stead of any failure to pass laws.’ "

In our society today there are surely many men of integrity such as was William Jay Gaynor. Why do we so seldom find them in pub­lic office? We can answer this question in Gaynor’s own words: "If the people of a city are gen­erally ignorant, base, and cor­rupt," he said, "they will have that kind of government…. govern­ment like water does not rise higher than its source."

Gaynor was always his own master, wrote Louis Heaton Pink. "No one—no politician, financier, or priest—ever controlled him. With all his faults and petty weak­nesses he towered above his fel­lows. ‘I have been Mayor’—for this posterity will remember him."



Nock, Albert Jay, Memoirs of a Su­perfluous Man. New York: Harper and Bros., 1943, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1965. A Journal of These Days. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1934. "Notes on a Great American"—American Mer­cury, December, 1932.

Pink, Louis Heaton, Gaynor—The Tammany Mayor Who Swallowed the Tiger. New York: The Inter­national Press, 1931.

Smith, Mortimer, William Jay Gay­nor: Mayor of New York. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1951.

Thomas, Lately, The Mayor Who Mastered New York. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1969. $12.50. 516 pp.




If it be selfishness to work on the job one likes, because one likes it and for no other end, let us accept the odium. I had rather live forever in a company of Don Quixotes, than among a set of angels professing to be solely moved to the betterment of one another. A community of creatures engaged primarily in serving one another, except for the joy of meddling in one another’s business, appears, to me at least, so dreary and so empty, that I would have no part or parcel in their pallid enterprises. Let us then, if one insist on candor, do our jobs for ourselves; we are in no danger of disserving the State.

JUDGE LEARNED HAND, The Spirit of Liberty 

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