“I Find the Board Have Granted”: Jonathan Child (January 30, 1785-October 27, 1860)

Professional historians study history, in part, because the past can tell us much about recurring issues and current events. To be sure, this often means learning as much from history’s mistakes as from its successes.

For instance, Rochester’s first mayor, Jonathan Child, might serve as a case study in how not to deal with controversial issues. We have already seen in previous blog posts how the temperance movement arose in the 1820s and the passions that centered around it. As the first mayor of the new city of Rochester, Jonathan Child had to negotiate the controversy within the young community. He chose to do so in a most unusual way.

Jonathan Child_portrait

Jonathan Child, ca 1835-1850.

Born in Lyme, New Hampshire in 1785, Child moved to Utica, New York around 1805 and five years later moved to Charlotte. During the War of 1812, he fought in the Battle of Fort Erie, attaining the rank of Major. Following the war, he resided in Bloomfield (Ontario County), where he met and married  Sophia Eliza Rochester (November 29, 1793-March 3, 1850), eldest daughter of city founder Nathaniel Rochester. With Sophia, he had nine children.

By 1820, Child had relocated to Rochester, where he opened a store at Four Corners (West Main and State Streets). After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, he ran a line of packet and freight boats, and a decade later organized and built the Tonawanda Railroad, Rochester’s first steam line. He served as a trustee of the village of Rochester beginning in 1827, as well as a trustee of the first bank in Rochester in 1834.

Jonathan Child_house

Jonathan Child House, 37 South Washington Street, built ca 1837. Today site of Tango Cafe Dance Studio

On April 28, 1834 Rochester received its charter as a city. Less than two months later on, June 9, 1834, the Rochester Common Council appointed Jonathan Child to serve as Rochester’s first mayor for a one-year term. In that term, Child strove to restrain the pro-alcohol forces in the city, opposing the granting of liquor licenses. The result of his effort brought the election of several Democrats to the Common Council who opposed his Whig party temperance agenda. When the new Council met in June 1835, Child was re-elected mayor, but the Council also authorized granting liquor licenses. Child was caught between a rock and a hard place because as mayor he had to sign the licenses. We will let Child explain the predicament and his solution:

“On my return from the city of New York … I find … that the new Board have granted a large number of tavern and grocery licenses. Some of these seem to me to have been obtained under the name of tavern licenses, in circumstances directly contravening the intention and letter of the legislative enactments upon the subject. Some of them also have been granted to persons to whom a similar privilege had been refused, on satisfactory personal grounds, by the previous Board. … I am constrained to act according to my own solemn convictions of moral duty and estimation of legal right. … When I find myself so situated in my official station as to be obligated either on the one hand to violate these high obligations, or on the other to stand in opposition to the declared wishes of the large majority of the Board, and through them of their constituents – my valued friends and fellow citizens — I dare not retain the public station which exposes me to this unhappy dilemma. … I therefore now most respectfully resign into your hands the office of mayor of the city of Rochester.”   

Child resigned from office on June 23, 1834 and, in the words of former City Historian Blake McKelvey, “Total abstinence lost out, and Rochester was never able to satisfy the desires of its temperance advocates.”


-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on June 13, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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