'Elmira's forgotten governor': Remembering Lucius Robinson, who served from 1877-1880

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Lucius Robinson has been called “Elmira’s Forgotten Governor.”

He served from Jan. 1, 1877 to Jan. 1, 1880. Robinson held many offices and ran as a Democrat, a Republican and a Unionist over time. After he lost re-election for State Comptroller as a Democrat in 1865, the New York Tribune noted, “Robinson is today, what he has always been, a genuine Democrat, a true Republican, a hearty Unionist, and an inflexibly honest and faithful guardian of the treasury.”

Dr. Herbert Wisbey Jr., Elmira College Professor of American History, wrote that "Robinson’s three-year term as governor of New York was significant in many respects, yet Robinson is a neglected figure in New York history and is barely remembered in Elmira itself. He is one of three of the first thirty four governors of New York not included in the comprehensive 'Directory of American Biography' and biographical information about him is fragmentary and scattered in obscure sources." (Chemung County Historical Journal, December 1968).

Lucius Robinson purchased land on Maple Avenue in Elmira in 1842 and was later elected New York state comptroller and governor during a long public career.
Lucius Robinson purchased land on Maple Avenue in Elmira in 1842 and was later elected New York state comptroller and governor during a long public career.

Lucius Robinson was not an Elmira native. Born Nov. 4, 1810 in Greene County, NY, he was a direct descendant of the Rev. John Robinson of the Pilgrim congregation. He was admitted to the bar in 1832, the same year he cast his first vote for Democrat Andrew Jackson for President.

Robinson served as Greene County District Attorney from 1837-40. He moved to New York City where he combined a successful law career with a career in journalism, writing editorials for the New York Evening Post.

His connection to Tammany Hall led to his appointment as Master of Chancery, a judicial post, in 1843 and reappointment in 1846. In 1842, he purchased land on Maple Avenue which at that time was south of the village of Elmira. In 1855, he chose to relocate to Elmira for health reasons. He had been diagnosed with “consumption” and a change of climate seemed desirable.

Robinson rose to prominence in Elmira

His leadership in the Elmira community is evident as he became a trustee of Elmira College (1860-62) and first vice president of the Erie Railroad.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise, split the Democratic Party in New York. Robinson was staunch anti-slavery and as a Free Soil Democrat he helped form the Republican Party. In 1859 he was nominated by the Republican Party for the New York State Assembly without his knowledge or consultation. He thought it his duty to accept and was re-elected in 1860. (Our County and Its People, Ausburn Towner)

In 1861, the Civil War crisis led to the holding of a People’s Convention which created a bipartisan slate of statewide candidates. Robinson was elected state comptroller, the highest financial office in the state. An attempt to ease him out of office in 1863 caused such a backlash that the person nominated by the Republicans withdrew. Robinson was back on the ticket and was the first comptroller re-elected up to that time.

Dr. Wisbey wrote that “Robinson’s record as comptroller demonstrated his almost fanatical devotion to guarding the public treasury.” The former Chemung County historian Ausburn Towner noted that although Robinson differed with the Lincoln Administration in its financial policy (and would eventually oppose Lincoln’s re-nomination) he was a “tower of strength in the state in the raising of troops, equipping them and forwarding them to the front. It was largely through his efforts that Elmira was made a military rendezvous.”

He was known as a “War Democrat” and “war comptroller.” In 1865, Robinson ran as a Democrat for re-election and lost. He would be re-elected in 1875 and elected governor while serving.

Robinson's track record as governor

Robinson’s road to the governorship was a bit rocky. Incumbent Governor Samuel J. Tilden wanted his Lt. Gov. Wilber Dorsheimer nominated, and the Democratic Convention nominated former governor Horatio Seymour not knowing he had declined before the vote.

Two weeks later the convention reconvened and Robinson was nominated. With his victory that fall be became the first governor to serve a three-year term.

Governor Robinson had strong views and in the opinion of Dr. Wisbey his “record as governor was almost entirely negative.” He opposed the building of a new State Capitol building, calling it “a vast pile of ornamental stone work … without parallel for extravagance and folly.” Robinson did not attend the dedication.

“He opposed levying taxes to support secondary and higher education calling such action ‘legalized robbery’. He also insisted that the state’s normal schools-teacher colleges-were useless.” (Mark Fleischer-undated Star Gazette article from Historical Society archives.)

He took a dim view of women’s rights. He vetoed a bill that would have allowed the election of women to school boards. He declared, "The God of nature has appointed different fields of labor, duty and usefulness for the sexes. His decrees cannot be changed by human legislation." (Wisbey, Chemung County Historical Journal 1968). His refusal to pardon Boss Tweed was seen as a positive action except by Tammany Hall, for which its leader John Kelly vowed to prevent Robinson’s re-election.

Robinson, a former railroad vice president, took bold action against workers in the Great Railway Strike of 1877. “He placed the entire military force of the state under arms and took vigorous action against the strikers along the route of the Erie Railroad.” The workers went back to work at reduced wages and a different attitude toward Governor Robinson. (Wisbey)

Mark Fleisher wrote that “Robinson championed the growing reform movement in prison administration. A few months before Robinson took office, the Elmira Reformatory opened as the world’s first facility for young adult males. Robinson supported the appointment of reform-minded Louis D. Pilsbury to serve as state prison superintendent and Zebulon Brockway to head the Elmira facility.”

Lucius Robinson lost his re-election with Boss John Kelly of Tammany Hall running as a “spoiler.” Robinson lost by 42,782 votes to the Republican Alonzo Cornell, but Kelly had pulled 77,550 Democratic votes in New York City.

Governor Robinson lived out his remaining years in Elmira. He had been married twice. His first wife, the mother of his two children, died in 1861. His second wife died in 1872. Robinson died of pneumonia at the age of 81 on March 23, 1891. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

-- Jim Hare writes a monthly history column.

This article originally appeared on The Evening Tribune: Lucius Robinson of Elmira served as New York comptroller, governor