The Union League Club of New York is a prominent social club in New York City. Its fourth and current clubhouse (opened February 2, 1931) is a building designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, located at 38 E. 37th Street in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan.
Union League clubs, which are legally separate but share similar histories and maintain reciprocal links with one another, are also located in Chicago and Philadelphia. Defunct Union League Clubs were located in Brooklyn and New Haven.
The club dates its founding from Feb. 6, 1863, during the Civil War. Tensions were running high in New York City at the time, because much of the city's governing class, as well as its large Irish immigrant population, bitterly opposed the war and were eager to reach some kind of accommodation with the Confederate States of America. Thus, pro-Union men chose to form their own club, with the twin goals of cultivating "a profound national devotion" and to "strengthen a love and respect for the Union."
The Union League (also known as Loyal Leagues) was actually a political movement before it became a social organization. Its members raised money both to support the United States Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the American Red Cross, which cared for the Union wounded following battles, and the Union cause generally.
It didn't take long for the club's enemies to make their displeasure felt with the new organization. On July 13, 1863, just five months after the club's foundation and only days after receiving word of the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg, the New York Draft Riots exploded right in the club's backyard. The Union League Club was high on the vandals' list of targets, but members kept them at bay by maintaining an armed vigil in the locked and barricaded clubhouse on East 17th Street, just off Union Square Park.
A few months later, the members decided to make an unmistakable gesture that they had not been intimidated. The club decided to recruit, train and equip a Colored infantry regiment for Union service. The 20th U.S. Colored Infantry was formed on Riker's Island in February 1864. The next month, it marched from the Union League Club, down Canal Street and over to the Hudson River piers to embark for duty in Louisiana. In spite of numerous threats, the members of the Union League Club marched with the men of the 20th, and saw them off. During World War I, the club sponsored the 369th Infantry, the famed Harlem Hellfighters, which was commanded by William Hayward, a club member.
During Reconstruction, Union Leagues were formed all across the South. They mobilized freedmen to register to vote. They discussed political issues, promoted civic projects, and mobilized workers opposed to segregationist white employers. Most branches were segregated but there were a few that were racially integrated. The leaders of the all-black units were mostly urban Blacks from the North, who had never been slaves. Foner (p 283) says "virtually every Black voter in the South had enrolled." Black League members were special targets of the Ku Klux Klan's violence and intimidation, so the Leagues organized informal armed defense units.
After the end of Reconstruction, the Union League Club of New York devoted itself to civic projects and clean government. It and its members helped to found the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  and assisted in building the Statue of Liberty  and Grant's Tomb.
The ULC's first clubhouse was at 26 E. 17th. St. (1863). The second clubhouse was the Jerome Mansion, the childhood home of Winston S. Churchill's mother Jennie Jerome, at Madison Avenue and E. 26th Street (1868). The club then moved to Fifth Avenue and E. 39th. St. (1881), where it remained until the move to the present building. Unlike many club buildings, the current clubhouse is purpose-built, rather than being a converted mansion or building constructed for another purpose.
The club has always promoted clean government and public-spiritedness. Many of its early members, notably cartoonist Thomas Nast, were instrumental in breaking "Boss" Tweed's political organization. (Interestingly, a future club president, Elihu Root, served as one of Tweed's defense counsels.) Manhattan District Attorney and club member Charles S. Whitman used the privacy afforded by the club to secretly interview witnesses during his investigation of the case that sent NYPD Lt. Charles Becker to the electric chair in 1915. Whitman was elected New York Governor as a result.
Long a men's club, it decided to admit women in the 1980s. Faith Whittlesey, President Reagan's Ambassador to Switzerland was the first female member (1986). Women now play prominent roles in the club's leadership including the Board of Governors, the Admissions Committee, the Public Affairs Committee, and the House Committee.
Two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Chester A. Arthur, were members of the club prior to entering the White House. Former presidents resident in New York, notably Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover, were active members.
Theodore Roosevelt was blackballed when he first applied for membership in 1881, possibly because his mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was a well-known Confederate sympathizer. Following the sudden deaths of his wife and mother in 1884, however, he was offered membership and accepted. After running on the Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912, Roosevelt was persona non grata at the club for several years, being welcomed back after the United States entered World War I.
George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brent Scowcroft, Sandra Day O'Connor, Henry Kissinger, Antonin Scalia, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Neil Armstrong are Honorary Members.
The club has a strong artistic tradition (see list of members below). Some artist-members in the 19th century contributed paintings to the club in lieu of dues, and these remain part of the club's collection.
- George Bethune Adams, federal judge;
- Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States;
- Henry Whitney Bellows, Clergyman and social reformer;
- Albert Bierstadt, Hudson River School artist;
- William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Post;
- Samuel Colman, Hudson River School artist;
- Peter Cooper, inventor and philanthropist;
- Jasper Francis Cropsey, Hudson River School artist;
- Chauncey Depew, U.S. senator, corporate lawyer; club president, 1886-92;
- Cyrus West Field, "Father" of the Atlantic cable;
- John Ericsson, Swedish-American inventor of the USS Monitor;
- Sanford Robinson Gifford, Hudson River School artist;
- Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General, United States Army, 18th President of the United States;
- Martin Johnson Heade, Hudson River School artist;
- Herbert Hoover, Engineer, humanitarian, 31st President of the United States;
- Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court; club president, 1917-19;
- Daniel Huntington, Genre artist;
- Eastman Johnson, 19th century American artist;
- John Frederick Kensett, Hudson River School artist;
- Emanuel Leutze, American history painter;
- Alfred Erskine Marling, Real estate developer; club president, 1928-30;
- J.P. Morgan, Wall Street financier;
- J.P. Morgan, Jr., Wall Street financier;
- Thomas Nast, Political cartoonist and artist;
- Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, designer of Central Park;
- Charles Henry Parkhurst, clergyman and social reformer who broke Boss Tweed's ring;
- Horace Porter, Union Army officer, aide to Ulysses S. Grant, club president, 1893-97;
- Frederic Remington, Western artist;
- J.D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil;
- Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider, New York Governor, 26th President of the United States;
- Elihu Root, Republican Party "wise man;" club president, 1898-99; 1915-16;
- Joseph Seligman, Banker, philanthropist;
- William T. Sherman, Union Civil War general;
- George Templeton Strong, Civil War diarist, Union League founding member;
- Charles S. Whitman, New York Governor and Manhattan District Attorney;
- Faith Ryan Whittlesey, Ambassador to Switzerland and Assistant to the Ronald Reagan for Public Liaison
- Worthington Whittredge, Hudson River School and Western artist;
- William Woodin, Treasury Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- List of American gentlemen's clubs
- About the Club, Union League Club website, accessed November 21, 2008
- John K. Howat, "Founding friends - of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York," The Magazine Antiques January 2000 issue.
- National Park Service Statue of Liberty website.
- "UNION LEAGUE WANTS CASH; OREDIT TO BE GIVEN TO SOME OF THE MEMBERS LIMITED. Indignation Caused by the Action of the Executive Committee -- From $10 to $50 Fixed as the Extent to Which About Forty Members Can Be Served Without Paying Money Down-Many Protests Made by the Members Affected and Their Friends.". New York Times: pp. 16. March 16, 1894. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9506E3D81F39E033A25755C1A9659C94659ED7CF. Retrieved 2009-02-23.
- "UNION LEAGUE CLUB'S ELECTION; Gen. Horace Porter Again Made President -- Inquiry into Alleged Fraudulent Republican Enrollment Approved". New York Times: pp. 5. January 10, 1896. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9502E1D91231E033A25753C1A9679C94679ED7CF. Retrieved 2009-02-23.
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