This exhibit was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, finding, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"A More Worthy Impulse": The Chamber of Commerce, as it looked perched at the sharp pinnacle of its power and influence.
Poised between defiant colonists and their imperial rulers, the early Chamber kept politics out of its affairs for as long as it could, occupying the middle ground until it crumbled and became untenable.
The Civil War offered the New York Chamber of Commerce both its finest opportunity and one of its most divisive challenges. The leading merchants in a City whose most important commodity was slave-produced cotton, the members nonetheless embraced the Union cause and even came to accept - gradually, incompletely, and in half-steps - the inevitability of emancipation.
As the United States emerged as a Great Power, the members of the Chamber of Commerce took upon themselves the responsibility of directing the national course. From political deals to imperialist adventures, World Wars to minor scuffles - New York's merchants and industrialists rarely failed to have their say.
New York City and its Chamber of Commerce grew together. Nothing was more important to the merchants than the health and prosperity of their metropolis. From construction decisions to budgetary concerns, there were few areas of governance about which the Chamber did not speak its mind.
Business was an art and a science, mostly - in the nineteenth century - it was a science. And, the Chamber of Commerce eagerly patronized any technologies that could give its members an advantage.
The men of the Chamber knew what it meant to hire and manage workers, and it followed that they knew what was best for their workers, too. Labor disputes touched on many of the members' operations and finances. And they constantly searched for a solution to workplace friction.
The City's elite did not doubt that their financial success proved their fitness to guide their fellow citizens. Their experience in affairs of business had trained them to draft and enforce the laws. They were natural leaders of society, and naturally they assumed that stewardship of the natural world fell to them, as well.
The Chamber spent resources and energy to commemorate itself and its own deeds. But, it also participated in memorializing American heroes and national accomplishments. Always, it carefully shaped the presentation of history in order to preserve a usable past.
The Chamber always combined its public functions - lobbying, arbitrating disputes, drafting legislation - with the private privileges of an exclusive social club.