CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York's First Citizen, 1858-1959

Article excerpt

CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York's First Citizen, 1858-1959. By George Martin. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005, Pp. 690. $35.00.)

In his seventy-fifth year the magazine The Nation named the lawyer and activist Charles Cult Burlingham New York's First Citizen for his contributions to the civic life of the city. Based on impressive research in Burlingham's extensive papers and correspondence, as well as other public and private documents, George Martin's biography paints a lively picture of how an intelligent, well-intentioned man changed the character of the civic life of the city. With the determination of a witty, courteous, and clever bulldog, he pursued a goal of honest and responsible government for New York. While neither a journalist nor a politician, Burlingham had the ear of many powerful people and the cooperation of others, and through them he promoted men (and tried to promote women, too) he considered wise and honest. With a smile, Burlingham spoke of these activities as "meddling."

While at Harvard, Burlingham fell under the influence of the great preacher Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston, who preached that God's aim was for people to "help the world." Burlingham took the words to heart. He practiced maritime law, most notably defending the White Star Line in the Titanic disaster, but he spent much of his time in the civic work he called "meddling." In the days of Tammany Hall, his first public battle was to reform the school system. Soon he tackled the job of reforming civil service. When it was clear that Tammany corruption could not be tamed piecemeal, he and a few others organized the Fusion Party to wrest power from Tammany Hall and elect Fiorello LaGuardia mayor of New York. Thereafter Burlingham remained the close mentor of the mayor. Honest and intelligent judges were especially important to reform, and Burlingham, as president of the Bar Association, scrutinized appointments to state and federal benches, promoting especially Benjamin Cardozo from early in his career until his appointment to the Supreme Court. …

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