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Henry Clay Frick: The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art

Henry Clay Frick: The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art
December 3, 2020 By: Sue Morris, Clayton Docent

Henry Clay Frick: The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art

One of the most memorable songs from the 2015 Hamilton musical belongs to Aaron Burr. Regardless of his personal political convictions (or lack thereof), Burr’s character longs to be a player of consequence in "the room where it happens." Had Aaron Burr lived 80 years later during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, he likely would have been drawn to the back rooms of power inhabited by Pittsburgh’s prominent men. One of those rooms was this one, the Breakfast Room at Henry Clay Frick’s home, Clayton. Here, wanna-be power-brokers could be literal players, for this was where Frick hosted occasional Thursday night poker games with the region’s monied, powerful industrialists.

Clayton Breakfast Room.

But Henry Clay Frick was not a politician. Any deals that happened in this room resulted from conversations over cards.

History is filled with individuals who held power politically without holding political office. That Henry Clay Frick could be counted amongst their number was the result of deliberate choices. Had he wanted to enter such public life, Frick had multiple opportunities to do so. According to family friend and contemporary biographer George Harvey, Henry Clay Frick was first approached about running as a Republican for public office in an 1880 US congressional race. What Frick thought about the offer isn’t known. But as a 30-year-old, newly-minted millionaire, Frick may well have been tempted to expand his spheres of influence so he could be in rooms where things happened. Frick was also likely mindful that he’d been climbing a ladder of success forged solely of Western Pennsylvania coal and steel. Rather than debut as a monied novice on a national stage, he decided to stick with what he knew. He declined a political role in favor of focusing on growing his business.


Henry Clay Frick, 1880. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Decades later, after his intersecting businesses had grown beyond all imagination, Frick continued to decline opportunities for personal political roles. In June 1903 he resisted President Theodore Roosevelt’s request to join the Isthmian Canal Commission overseeing Panama Canal construction, despite Roosevelt’s ingratiating assurance, “I feel no man’s name in the country would carry more weight than yours.” Despite the urging of Roosevelt and other friends, Frick also passed on opportunities to fill vacant Congressional Senate positions. He also reportedly turned down Cabinet positions under at least two administrations.

That such opportunities came Frick’s way reflects the eternal association of politics with wealth. The American political playing field has always been influenced by the interests of rich white men, and that influence dominated the Gilded Age era spanning Frick’s lifetime. But although he declined to play the role of politician, Frick did “play” politics. His wealth and prominence facilitated the acquisition of critical alliances and surrogates; money buys power, after all.

In local politics, Frick solicited the cooperation of Pittsburgher Christopher Lyman Magee. From the 1880s until his death in 1901, Magee’s unofficial role as a local political "boss" made him a singularly powerful figure in Pittsburgh, who controlled the local political machine through quid pro quo favors. On a Congressional level, the apogee of political reciprocity resided with Pennsylvania Republican Senators Matthew S. Quay and his successor Boies Penrose, both of whom championed the trade protectionist strategies that Frick favored. All three of these men were operators of the era’s inherently venal machine politics, and either directly or indirectly looted public coffers for personal gain. Frick generally avoided personal and social entanglements with disreputable politicians, but he had no qualms about lobbying them for mutually beneficial results.


Left: Matthew Stanley Quay, 1833–1904. William A. Greaves, State Museum of Pennsylvania. Right: Boies Penrose, 1860–1921. John St. Helier Lander, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Mrs. Martin Beaver. Bottom: Christopher Lyman Magee, 1848–1901. From A. K. McClure, Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co. 1903.

One antidote to relying upon tainted political alliances is to secure a position of power for one’s own trusted man. Frick did this by helping to advance into the upper echelons of federal government a man named Philander Chase Knox who was his own good friend, travel companion, and fellow Breakfast Room poker player. A native of Brownsville, PA and co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Knox and Reed law firm (today’s Reed Smith), Knox proved his worth during legal battles ensuing from the 1889 Johnstown Flood and Homestead Strike of 1892.

Knox’s government career blossomed with Frick’s patronage. During his twenty years in political office, Knox held multiple Cabinet positions under three administrations and twice served in Congress as a Pennsylvania senator. He was eminently capable, but as a beneficiary of the era’s spoils system Knox and everyone around him knew that since he owed his initial rise to power to Frick, he could be relied upon to advance related interests.


Philander Chase Knox, 1853–1921. Arthur de Ferroris, Courtesy of The United States Department of Justice.

Eighteen men held the office of President during Frick’s lifetime. Their terms straddled the new century’s transition from Gilded Age to Progressive Era and corresponded with Frick’s most active periods with Carnegie Company and the conglomerate of US Steel. Frick’s man Philander Knox had the ready attention of the three Presidents he served: William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. 

But so, too, did Henry Clay Frick.

Frick’s relationship with the affable Taft was the easiest to cultivate. William Howard Taft was president from 1909 to 1913. The homes used for his “summer White House” in Beverly, Massachusetts were near the Frick family’s palatial summer home north of Boston. Taft and Frick could mingle socially during the relaxed summer season in this privileged area, and likely crossed paths on the golf course. Both men enjoyed hitting the links as members of the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club and the Essex County Club.


Henry Clay Frick, March 1917. Golf Magazine, V XL, No. 4, April 1917.


Myopia Hunt Club postcard, early 1900s.

Golf cleats belonging to Henry Clay Frick displayed at Clayton.

Taft was the first serious presidential golfer, embracing the game enthusiastically if not exactly skillfully. An equally passionate golfer, Frick likewise did not have a reputation as a particularly accomplished player. One can’t help but wonder about the politics of playing golf with the President: does one play one’s best—or worst—to curry favor?

Perhaps golf was as good as poker when it came to backroom alliances, for Taft was pleased to appoint Philander Knox to his Cabinet as Secretary of State.


Philander Chase Knox and President William Howard Taft, c. 1909–1921. Gelatin silver print, Carnegie Museum of Art.

While Taft was easy to befriend, Frick had to assiduously court McKinley and Roosevelt in the interest of protecting his business interests.

Frick’s financial support of William McKinley preceded McKinley’s first presidential bid. As a Republican Congressman from Ohio, McKinley had articulated commendable stances on issues important to Pittsburgh’s steel barons. He caught the attention of Andrew Carnegie, who commented in a July 1889 business letter to Frick, "By the way we ought to help McKinley in Ohio – wish you would write him a private note and send him $5000 from me saying that his speech on Silver pleased me so much & I wished to show him he had friends…." A year later, McKinley authored far-reaching trade protectionism legislation known as the McKinley Tariff, which greatly pleased (and protected the business interests of) Pittsburgh’s captains of industry. They showed their appreciation a few years later, when McKinley suffered personal financial setbacks as governor of Ohio during the 1893 economic depression. McKinley received significant private contributions from those same captains of industry, who protected their own. Andrew Carnegie and Philander Knox were among his benefactors; Henry Clay Frick was as well, with a $2,000 donation that he likely considered an investment.

Presidential politics of this era included three critical issues for Pittsburgh businessmen: international import tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing from foreign competition; debates over a gold versus silver-based monetary standard; and ongoing concerns about the federal government’s role in regulating big business. McKinley was on the right side of these issues during the 1896 presidential election. However, he faced formidable opposition from famed Democratic orator William Jennings Bryan. Just like today’s voters, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick anxiously scanned the rhetoric, analyzed polls, and discussed politics in their personal correspondence. Unlike today’s average voter, however, both Carnegie and Frick significantly invested in a McKinley win. Each man was on record for individual campaign contributions in 1896 of the astronomical sums of $250,000.

Throughout that summer and fall, Pittsburghers by the thousands traveled by train to hear McKinley campaign from his front porch in Canton, Ohio. Though his home was slyly dubbed “The Shrine of Protection” in reference to his tariff stance, McKinley’s folksy Front Porch Campaign proved popular. His personal touch was palpable, and his grasp and communication of important issues earned him the support of both industrialists and laborers.

On 12 September 1896, McKinley’s visitors included a contingent of 2,500 men from the Carnegie Steel Works at Homestead. The Pittsburg Post, a pro-Bryan, pro-labor newspaper, alleged that these workers had been intimidated and coerced into attending. McKinley’s speech to the visiting steel workers focused on promoting prosperity for laboring men, and he strategically avoided mentioning the tumultuous Homestead Strike four years earlier. The rival Pittsburg Press enthusiastically reported that the steelworkers loved McKinley: "The people of Canton have heard no such cheers as burst from the throats of the steel workers when Maj. McKinley mounted a chair to address them."


Pittsburg Post, 12 September 1896. Headlines read: "Forced to be enthusiastic. Homestead workmen will journey to Canton under heavy guard. Must report as for work. Pleas of the people who are In charge of the convention. An unpleasant trip for some."

On another banner day in late September 1896, McKinley greeted 15,000 visitors and made 15 separate speeches to various delegations, mostly from western Pennsylvania. The Press assured readers that the local steelworkers who’d been given that day off and free train tickets to Canton "were not coerced into visiting."


Pittsburg Press, 27 September 1896. Headlines read: "15,000 at Canton. Sixteen delefations visited Major McKinley yesterday. Most of them Pennsylvanians. It was decidedly Pittsburg's own day there. Five trains for one party. One of the features which the spokesmen were particular to explain was that the pilgrims were not coerced into visiting the Shine of Protection."

Perhaps not, but the steel workers may well have traveled with implicit expectations that they’d best intend to vote for McKinley. For many of those men, however, it would have been a resonant electoral choice. McKinley persuaded with sentiments and rhetoric that appealed to the men on deeply personal levels, such as this statement made to the Pittsburgh crowd that day: "I welcome the first voters, the Germans, the Bohemians, the Hungarians, the Italians, American born and naturalized citizens, every one equal in privilege and opportunity beneath the American flag."

Example of Front Porch Campaign crowds in front of William McKinley's home in Canton, Ohio, October 1896. Library of Congress collection.

In November 1896 when McKinley won, the Fricks went all in on the celebration. Newspapers reported that the "Frick family" traveled to Washington for the March 1897 inauguration in style. Frick chartered an elegant private Pullman train car named Hazelmere for their travel, a luxurious state car often leased by politicians and presidents. Frick’s son, 13 year old Childs Frick, happily wrote to a former tutor that he’d named one of his pets McKinley "….because he was born on the 3d, when McKinley was elected" (although it wasn’t until a few days later, on 5 November 1896, that William Jennings Bryan actually conceded). Later in 1897, Childs and other East End neighborhood boys utilized a new playhouse on the Frick grounds as headquarters for a group they called the Clayton Cadets. The Pittsburg Post noted that the original group of 12 boys "….had its origin in a marching club that was a very lively organization during the McKinley-Bryan campaign." Such McKinley Marching Club groups began during McKinley’s governorship of Ohio but became very popular during his 1896 presidential bid. Republican clubs bearing similar names sprouted up all around the country, and some performed at the Canton Front Porch events.

The Clayton Cadets, led by "Captain" Childs Frick, grew to include more than 50 boys who practiced marching drills under direction of an Allegheny Arsenal officer. The boys proudly wore uniforms, and they and their families regularly held lawn fetes and other fundraising events in their wealthy neighborhood. While the Clayton Cadets group likely also owed its origins to interdenominational character-building boys’ brigades of the 1890s, it was popularly associated with enthusiasm for President McKinley.

Clayton Cadets c. 1897 in front of playhouse; Childs Frick in center. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Frick supported McKinley’s reelection bid in 1900. Andrew Carnegie did so grudgingly, frequently voicing reservations about American imperialism for which he held McKinley responsible. By the 1900 election, however, Frick and Carnegie’s personal and professional relationship had ended.

And one year later, in 1901, an assassin ended McKinley’s life.

Like the rest of the mourning nation, Frick had to quickly get to know new president Theodore Roosevelt. Pennsylvania Senator Matthew Quay had advocated putting Roosevelt on the ticket as McKinley’s vice-president in 1900, despite concerns from others about TR’s volatility. Frick was keen to assess how Roosevelt’s presidency could benefit Pittsburgh’s industrial interests and to develop alliances.

When navigating these key relationships, Frick did more than hone his skills at playing cards and poker to assure that he would remain in the rooms where things happened. He also turned to the politics of art. Learn more about that in Part Two: The Politics of Art.
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