Politicking at Saratoga

shows crowd arriving at Union Hotel in 1865.
Nineteenth-century politicians flocked to the springs in the summer after Congress adjourned.  The heat of Washington and other coastal cities and the attendant danger of disease made retreating to the wooded up-country sensible as well as agreeable.  Beginning around 1800, inn-keepers built large resorts there to accommodate the need.  The most well-known and successful of such resorts grew up around the site of healing mineral springs, in towns like Saratoga Springs, New York; White Sulphur Springs, Virginia; and Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.

Each resort drew guests from across state lines, making these watering-holes ideal for politicking.  White Sulphur attracted visitors from throughout the Upper South, while Saratoga drew its custom mainly from New York and New England.  Bedford drew politicians from across the mid-Atlantic states.  It was also a haven for officials whose duties kept them in the capital during the summer months.  James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, spent the summers of his presidency at Bedford Springs.

The resorts really took off after the creation of steamboat and railroad lines.  In combination, the steamers and trains made it easy for travelers to reach the resorts from New York City or Washington, DC.  The Union Hotel in Saratoga, shown above, grew hectic after the arrival of the daily ‘steamboat train.’  Many of its passengers came by boat up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, where they caught a connecting train carrying them the rest of the way.

The trunks’ labels identify guests hailing from Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.  The male crowd in the foreground means business, for they’re laden not only with trunks but with valises, no doubt crammed with correspondence and other papers.  They hobnob before blending into the pleasure-seeking crowd of women and men who throng the hotel’s ‘office’ (lobby).

Only an elite class of Americans could afford to leave home for the sake of summer leisure.  The wealthy and influential persons gathered at the resorts were exactly the sort whose support a politician needed to prevail in the November election or achieve the goals defining his political career.  The patriotic names given to many of the hotels at Saratoga and elsewhere (the Union, the American, the Congress) attest to the political functions they tacitly served.

‘Appearance of the Office of the Union Hotel, Saratoga, New York,
on the Arrival of the Steamboat Train from Albany,
from a sketch by Mr. Albert Berghaus,’
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 12, 1865.
From the Yates Collection of Saratogiana at Skidmore College.
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12 responses

  1. Good point. I don’t see much of this during the Jefferson and Madison administrations–and then only in Virginia–probably because, as you indicate, transportation became easier later in the century.

    • The earliest mentions of going to the upcountry that I recall were in Freehling’s book on nullification. For the tidewater planters, the unhealthfulness of their lands in summer made removing to a higher spot an absolute necessity. But I have no idea whether they went to springs. Beyond that, I imagine that the development of the “springs” in the US after the Founding was part of a world-wide trend. The springs at Bath, England, for example, were ‘re-discovered’ in the late 18th century, prompting the large-scale development of the surrounding real estate, which was in full swing by Jane Austen’s time. I would have to look more carefully to see when Americans first started traveling to the springs in the US by carriage.

      I’m hoping to post more about the political scene at the springs, which is pretty well documented in prints, etc., beginning in the Jacksonian era and continuing on into the late nineteenth century.

      Thanks so much for writing in.

    • Here we go: To Thomas Jefferson from George Clinton, 29 July 1801
      From George Clinton
      Albany 29th. July 1801Dear Sir
      Mrs: Tudor intending to pass through the City of Washington on her way to the Springs in Berkeley County Virginia permit me to recommend her to your Friendly Notice and Attention—She is the Wife of Judge Tudor of Boston a Gentleman of much respectabillity and steady adherent to the virtuous Principles of our Revolution & his good Lady possesses the same Sentiment in an immenent Degree—She will be accompanied by one of her sons, a well informed young Gentleman and of excellent Character. As a lady is concerned I flatter myself you will pardon this Liberty Your’s sincerely,
      Geo: Clinton

    • So the networking begins! And what a great quote. However did you find it so quickly?
      I think if you look at a lot of politicians’ summer correspondence you will discover much written from places like the Berkeley Springs. . . . I have found a lot from the Buchanan era.

    • Yes, a colleague and I are working on residential patterns of members of Congress pre-Civil War and on Thomas Jefferson’s strategy of personal lobbying.

    • Cool; but, you know, I’m officially in hiding (just kidding.) Anyway, the ol’ diss is being revised and will eventually see the light of day in some form other than a UMI publication. There are a ton of interesting things to be said about 19th-c resorts (and lobbying), however, that have no place in it. Just stuff picked up along the way. Your ambitions go far beyond mine, I gather!

  2. A nice, informative article and a fun picture to look at. . . . Yes, it has long been a tradition for the upper classes and politicos who are wealthy enough to scram from D.C. to the more temperate northern areas. . . . Interestingly, much of the same thing still occurs. The most powerful of the powerful gather in Aspen, Davos Switzerland, and the Teton mountains for very fancy conferences and retreats; plus major GOP and DEM conferences are sometimes paid for by rich party patrons at other top notch resorts.

    • This is an excellent point–the same thing goes on today, and we shouldn’t be surprised. It makes sense that Pusey (Elizabeth) Paepcke, who is credited with founding Aspen as a modern Chautauqua, was the sister of Paul Nitze, an arms control negotiator in the Cold War era. The ideas of summer relaxation and momentous strategizing are apparently closely linked in the human mind!