In a number of ways Nelson Aldrich embodied the idea of the Horatio Alger success story with a political twist: Hard work paid off.
Once back in Rhode Island, he resumed his position and the grocery business advanced rapidly. He was able to use his membership in the Masons to help collect an outstanding debt in 1866, which so pleased Wightman that Aldrich was promoted to the status of a junior partner in the firm. As a promising young businessman, a Mason, and a Republican, he was soon recognized by the men who wielded the political power in the state and, in 1869, he was elected to the Providence Common Council, becoming president of that body in 1871.
Advancement came quickly. In 1875 Aldrich was a member of the state legislature and the Speaker of the House the following year. His political rise was matched by his business success. By 1877 Aldrich was president of the First National Bank in Providence and president of the Providence Board of Trade.
Much of Aldrich’s success in politics came as a result of his association with Senator Henry B. Anthony, the “boss” of Rhode Island, and Anthony’s assistant, Charles Brayton. Anthony and Brayton built a well-organized and disciplined political machine in Rhode Island by taking advantage of the system of representation then prevalent in the state that gave the small “Yankee” towns the balance of power in the General Assembly. By using the Anthony-controlled Providence Journal, by playing on prejudice against the “foreign Catholic city-worker,” and by open bribery, Brayton was able to “deliver the vote” and control the General Assembly.
In 1877 Brayton feared that Aldrich might join forces with Henry Lippitt, the only possible threat to Sen. Anthony’s total control, and offered young Aldrich the governorship to win him over. Aldrich realized that being governor of Rhode Island at the time was at most an empty honor and turned the offer down.
Brayton then offered him the chance to run for Congress in 1878. With the help of Sen. Anthony and “Boss” Brayton, Aldrich was elected. In 1881, when Sen. Ambrose Burnside died, Brayton and Anthony chose Aldrich as his successor. In 1881 U.S. senators were selected by the state legislature rather than by popular election and, as Anthony and Brayton controlled the Rhode Island State Legislature, Aldrich’s election was assured. Aldrich received the opportunity to begin the career that over the next 30 years would earn him titles such as “General Manager of the U.S.,” “Boss of the Senate,” “Commander-in-Chief of the forces of protective tariffs” and “the most powerful man in U.S. politics.”