Archive:William Collins Whitney (1841-1904)

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Archives > Archive:Biographies > William Collins Whitney (1841-1904)

William Collins Whitney, b. Conway, Mass., July 5, 1841, d. Feb. 2, 1904, was an American financier and political leader. He became a corporation lawyer in New York City and served (1875-82) as the city's corporation counsel, helping to reorganize its legal and financial affairs and assisting in the prosecution of the Tweed Ring.

A strong backer of Grover Cleveland in the 1882 New York gubernatorial campaign and the 1884 presidential contest, Whitney served President Cleveland as secretary of the navy (1885-89), securing legislation for the construction of armor-plated war vessels.

Hirsch, Mark D., William C. Whitney, Modern Warwick (1948; repr. 1969)

"William Collins Whitney was born in rural Massachusetts in 1841 of estimable lineage but slender fortune. Educated at Yale, charming, and with a calm authority even in his youth, he seemed destined to a brillant future. His marriage to Flora Payne, the vivacious though not truly beautiful Cleveland heiress, could only have appeared to enhance his prospects.

"Dividing his time between Washington and New York, Whitney abandoned the road to the White House to make a fortune of his own, while trying to accomodate Flora's social ambitions in a day when Mrs. Astor was queen of the "400" and "parvenus' like the Vanderbitls were spending millions to storm the gates. Whitney, the charmer, the mediator, the consummate politician and a pivotal force in Tammany and the national Democratic party, made his fortune by methods so subtle that they remained undiscovered in his lifetime. But he was not to escape tragedy.

"His daughter Dorothy, an heiress to millions, was an orphan at seventeen. A lover of dance and society, but with a social conscience lacking in her parents she fell in love, while touring China, with Willard Dickerman Straight. Although negotiating enormous banking transactions in Peking and serving as advisor to railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, who was attempting to create a round-the-world transportation system by hooking up with the trans-siberian Railway, Straight had neither social standing nor money. Dorothy's family was horrified. she had rejected dozens of suitors who had both. but Straight was handson and gifted and, like Dorothy, had political and social ideals. She married him and and their marriage was touching in its closeness. Persisting in their political and social concern, they were founders of the The New Republic, and Dorothy was instrumental in starting the New School for Social Research. But their marriage, too, would be cut short."

From the flyleaf of Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress Two generations of one of America's richest families, by W.A. Swanberg, published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1980.

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FLORA12 PAYNE (HENRY B.11, ELISHA10 PAINE, ABRAHAM9, RUTH8 ADAMS, JOHN7, PETER6, HENRY5, JOHN4, HENRY3, JOHN2, ROBERT1) was born January 25, 1842 in Cleveland, Ohio, and died February 5, 1893 in New York City, New York. She married WILLIAM COLLINS WHITNEY October 20, 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio, son of JAMES WHITNEY and LAURINDA COLLINS.

Notes for FLORA PAYNE:
Flora Payne Whitney was educated at private schools in America and Europe. She took a special course of study in science at Cambridge, Mass., under the late Professor Louis Agassiz. During her residence abroad she was a constant correspondent of her father, and though written only for his eye, her letters were of such merit Senator Payne had them privately printed.

Mrs. Whitney was remarkable as a social leader. Her greatest success came during the first administration of President Cleveland, when Mr. Whitney was Secretary of the Navy.

William Collins Whitney prepared for college at Williston Seminary, Easthampton, Mass., and entered Yale in 1859, graduating with honors in the Class of 1863. Among his classmates was William Graham Sumner, afterwards Professor of Societology at Yale. Whitney and Sumner shared the prize for English essays between them. Whitney, however, won out over Sumner in the election for class orator. He graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1865 and then entered the law office of Judge Abraham R. Lawrence in New York City. In his profession he was very successful, soon acquiring a large practice. Shortly he became interested in politics and was the chief organizer of the Young Men's Democratic Club, an organization in opposition to Tweed and his ring. He soon became known to Samuel J. Tilden, and became one of his lieutenants. Mr. Tilden is said to have regarded him as the ablest political protégé he ever had. Whitney then organized what was known as the Appollo Hall, and became the unsuccessful candidate of that body for District-Attorney in 1872.

Becoming prominent as a leader of the County Democracy, he was appointed inspector of schools. He was active in the campaign of 1874 when Mr. Tilden was elected Governor of New York State, and Wickham Mayor of the City. The latter appointed Whitney Corporation Counsel of the City, a position which he held until 1832, when he returned to private practice. His complete reform of the office of Corporation Counsel won him much renown. He saved the City many millions of dollars and corrected many abuses of the Tweed regime. He so systematized the work of his office that he saved the City nearly two millions of dollars in his first year.

During the Presidential campaign of 1884, Mr. Whitney did much in the way of organization to secure the election of Mr. Cleveland. In March, 1885, the latter appointed him Secretary of the Navy. In that office he ably carried on the creation of the new American Navy, begun under the Naval Advisory Board appointed in 1881. His greatest achievement in this position was the negotiation of contracts for armor plate, which made possible the establishment of a domestic armor plate plant at South Bethlehem, Pa.

After his retirement from the Cabinet, Mr. Whitney devoted himself to financial enterprises with very great success.

In the Presidential campaign of 1892 Whitney's political abilities were brought into fullest exercise. He was himself the choice for the office of President of many prominent Democrats, and it is quite possible that he might have been the candidate of the party had he been willing to accept the nomination. Two factions were found to exist in the party ranks, one desiring Mr. Cleveland's re-nomination, the other organized against him. At once, Whitney laid aside all personal ambition and devoted himself completely to the cause of his old chief. Delegates instructed against Cleveland had been chosen in New York, and the movement was growing elsewhere. Whitney promptly invited Democratic leaders from New York and other States to a conference at his house in New York. No report of what passed at this conference ever reached the public, yet it is known that at this meeting the entire work of the coming Chicago convention was carefully planned, and each man's part assigned him. As a result, at the convention everything fell out as it had been planned, and Cleveland was nominated on the first ballot.

The close of this campaign marks the retirement of Mr. Whitney from political life. He refused all offices and continued to be absorbed in his varied business interests. Yet in 1896 he consented to be a delegate to the National Democratic Convention at Chicago, and exerted every influence at his command to stem the free silver tide and prevent the nomination of Mr. Bryan. In 1900, in spite of the importunities of his friends he utterly refused to have his name considered as a Presidential nominee.

Mr. Whitney's interests were very wide. His holdings of forest land on Long Island, in the Berkshires and in the Adirondacks attest his interest in the preservation of the forests. His stable included many of the best-known racing horses in America and England.

Mr. Whitney's classmate and friendly Professor William Graham Sumner, says of him, as he was when he graduated from Yale:

"The kind of vanity which develops ambition he seemed to lack. He had the qualities which constitute the power to lead men. In part these were good sense and judgment and in part they were graces of character. He was magnanimous, unselfish and generous. He was generous with money, but his generosity of mind was far more worthy. He was not at all easily offended. He made large allowances, or he paid no attention to those aspects of occurrences which might have been expected to touch his personal feeling. In fact, one characteristic which goes far to account for his popularity and his personal influence was that he put little personal feeling into his relations with other men, even when they were antagonistic. * * * The fact was that did not care enough for power to put forth the exertion. We all agreed, when we graduated that his success would depend on whether anything would stimulate him to a full development of his powers."

Mr. Whitney was a descendant of General Josiah Whitney of the Revolution, who in turn was a descendant of Sir Robert Whitney of Whitney, Herefordshire, England [NOTE]. Mr. Whitney was also a descendant of William Bradford of the Mayflower, Governor of Plymouth Colony.

Mr. Whitney married, a second time, in 1896, Edith Sibyl May, widow of Colonel Arthur Randolph of East Court, Wiltshire, England. She died May 6, 1899.


  1. + HARRY PAYNE13 WHITNEY, b. April 29, 1872, New York City, New York.
  2. + PAULINE PAYNE WHITNEY, b. March 21, 1874, New York City, New York.
  3. + PAYNE WHITNEY, b. March 21, 1876, New York City, New York; d. 1927.
  4. OLIVE WHITNEY, b. 1878; d. February 3, 1883, Paris, France.
  5. DOROTHY PAYNE WHITNEY, b. January 23, 1887, Washington, D.C.; m. WILLARD DICKERMAN STRAIGHT, September 6, 1911, Geneva, Switzerland.

Dorothy Payne Straight was educated at private schools, and has spent a great part of her life abroad. She is deeply interested in the charitable and philanthropic work carried on in New York City.

Willard Dickerman Straight was educated at the Bordentown (N. J.) Military Institute, and at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1901 with the degree of Bachelor of Architecture. After his graduation he was appointed to a position in the Chinese Customs Service under Sir Robert Hart, in which position he served at Nanking and Pekin for two years. When the Russian war with Japan broke out he became a war correspondent for Reuter's, and later an assistant war correspondent for the Associated Press. In April, 1905, Mr. Straight was appointed Vice-Consul General at Seoul, and in 1906 was promoted to be Consul General at Mukden. In 1908 he was detailed for about six months as Acting Chief of the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department.

Resigning from the State Department in June of 1909, Mr. Straight went to China as the representative of J. P. Morgan & Co., Kuhn, Loeb & Co., and other American financiers, in the negotiations respecting the Chinese loans finally taken equally by the United States, England, Germany and France. In this difficult business he has been amazingly successful.

HARRY PAYNE13 WHITNEY was born April 29, 1872 in New York City, New York. He married GERTRUDE VANDERBILT August 25, 1896 in Newport, R.I., daughter of CORNELIUS VANDERBILT.

Harry Payne Whitney prepared for college at Groton School, at Groton, Mass. He graduated from Yale in 1894, with the degree of B. A., taking honors in scholarship. After graduation he spent two years in study at the Columbia Law school. Since that time he has been engaged in financial enterprises many of which were organized by his father, the Hon. William Collins Whitney. Mr. Whitney belongs to the Knickerbocker, Union, Racquet and Tennis and other clubs. He has been a member of the American Polo Team in a number of international contests, both in England and America. His large stable of racing horses has been very successful. Country house, Wheatley Hills, Westbury, L. I.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was educated at American schools. Since her marriage to Mr. Whitney she has spent mach time in the study and pursuit of sculpture and has done a number of notable works. The fountain in the patio of the Pan-American building at Washington is one of her best known pieces.

(SeeGertrude Vanderbilt Whitney)


  1. FLORA PAYNE14 WHITNEY, b. July 29, 1897.
  2. CORNELIUS VANDERBILT WHITNEY, b. February 20, 1899.
  3. BARBRA WHITNEY, b. March 20, 1903.

PAULINE PAYNE13 WHITNEY was born March 21, 1874 in New York City, New York. She married ALMERIC HUGH PAGET November 15, 1895 in New York City, New York, son of ALFRED PAGET and CECELIA WYNDAHAM.

Pauline (Whitney) Paget was educated in American schools. She devotes herself to charitable interests of many kinds.

Almeric Hugh Paget was educated at Harrow. Afterwards he worked in the shops of the Midland Railway, at Derby, Eng. In 1881 he went to America and engaged in farming and ranching in the Western States for several years. He then undertook commercial life in St. Paul, Minn., and New York City, becoming very successful. He was a founder of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company of Canada.

In 1902 Mr. Paget returned to England and since then has been much engaged in politics. He stood as Unionist candidate for Parliament for Cambridge in the general election of 1908, but was defeated. In 1910 he defeated his former opponent, and still (1911) remains a member of Parliament for Cambridge Borough. He was High Sheriff for the County of Suffolk in 1909. He is identified with the Central Land Association and the Tariff Reform League, being on the Executive Committee of both organizations, and he is president of the Eastern Provincial Division of the National Union of Conservative Associations.

Following the example of his father, Mr. Paget makes yachting his principal diversion. For several years he raced with considerable success the Herreshoff 30-footer one-design Pollywog at Newport, and since his return to England he has successively owned and raced both in English and Mediterranean waters, the South Coast one-design boats Caprice, Cuekoo II, Gracie, and the 15-meter Ma'oona, carrying off the first prize in the open handicap race from Cannes to Monte Carlo in 1902, and the Czar's prize at Cowes, in 1909.

He is a member of the Carlton, Turf, Garrick and other London clubs and is Rear-Commodore of the Royal Thames Yacht Club, of which his father was Commodore for many years.

The Paget family was founded by William Paget (1505-1563), who was created first Baron Paget of Beaudesert in Staffordshire. Beaudesert has ever since been the principal seat of the family. The first Baron Paget was a Secretary of State under Henry VIII, and in the later years of his reign one of the most trusted advisers of that monarch, who made him a trustee of his will and guardian of the young prince who afterwards reigned as Edward VI.

Many members of the family have won distinction in the military, naval and diplomatic service of the Crown. The best known of the family was the grandfather of Mr. Almeric Hugh Paget, Henry William, second Earl of Uxbridge (1768-1854), who was a famous leader of cavalry under Sir John Moore in the Peninsula War, and commanded with brilliant success the combined forces of cavalry and horse artillery under the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. For his services he was created the first Marquis of Anglesey. He was afterwards twice Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1828 and 1830. His son, General Lord Alfred Paget, C. B., who was Mr. Almeric Paget's father, was for many years Equerry and Clerk Marshall to the late Queen Victoria. He was also for some thirty years a member of Parliament for Lichfield.


  1. OLIVE CECILIA14 PAGET, b. September 24, 1899.
  2. DOROTHY WYHDHAM, b. February 21, 1905.

PAYNE13 WHITNEY was born March 21, 1876 in New York City, New York, and died 1927. He married HELEN HAY February 6, 1902 in Washington, D.C., daughter of JOHN HAY and CLARA STONE.

Payne Whitney was prepared for college at Groton School at Groton, Mass., and graduated from Yale in 1898 with the degree of B. A. He was captain of the Yale crew in senior year at college. He then took the regular course at the Harvard Law School, graduating in 1901 with the degree of LL. B. He had previously, in the same year, been admitted to the bar in New York.

Since his graduation Mr. Whitney has been engaged in financial enterprises. He belongs to the University, Knickerbocker, Racquet and Tennis and other clubs. His country house is "Greentree," at Manhasset, L. I.

Notes for HELEN HAY:
Helen Hay Whitney was educated at the Miss Masters' school for girls at Dobbs Ferry, N. Y. She has published a number of books. among them Some Verses, brought out in 1898, Beasts and Birds, 1899; The Little Boy Book, 1900, Sonnets and Songs, 1905; Verses for Jack and Joan, 1906; The Punch and Judy Book, 1906; Gypsy Verses, 1907, and The Bed-Time Book.

Children of PAYNE WHITNEY and HELEN HAY are:

  1. JOAN14 WHITNEY, b. February 5, 1903.
  2. JOHN HAY WHITNEY, b. August 17, 1905.

His ancestry: William Collins9 Whitney, James Scolly8, Stephen7, Josiah6, Josiah5, Richard4, Richard3, Richard2, John1

Copyright © 1999, 2006, The Whitney Research Group

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