Stephen B. French

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Stephen Bull “S. B.” French
S. B. French portrait.jpeg

Born January 16, 1829
Riverhead, New York
Died February 3, 1896
Sag Harbor, New York
Political Party Whig-turned-Republican
Spouse Mary Ann Hand (died 1865)
Julia Prentis (m. 1867)

Stephen Bull French, Sr. (January 16, 1829 – February 3, 1896),[1] also known as S. B. French, was a Republican politician from New York. Despite never holding well-known public offices, was tremendously active in Stalwart politics as a leader of party "regulars" who favored the traditional machine politics of the spoils system against civil service reform sought out by the opposing Half-Breed faction.[2]

Early life and career

French was born on January 16, 1829 to Peter French and the former Sally Smith in Riverhead, New York, situated in Suffolk County. His father of Huguenot descent and Canadian, while his mother was the descendant of Dutch immigrants who settled in Orange County.[3] As a child, the family moved to Sag Harbor, where French received little education and began clerking for John Budd at the age of thirteen. He worked in the office of storekeeper and "typical country merchant" Thomas Brown one and a half years later, though caught a whaling fever then prevalent among teenagers.[3]

Due to the fever, his father Peter granted a voyage for the youthful Stephen to embark on a blubber and bone voyage—boarding the Acasta of Sag Harbor, he explored Brazil, Chile, and much of the South Pacific over a span of three years, preparing to devote a life to whaling until news of the senior Peter's death reached him in 1847 upon returning home.[3] His mother's desolate loneliness, due to an older brother of French likewise running off from the family for sea exploration, led him to promise remaining at home, where he worked as a merchant.

Continued adventurous journey: Gold Rush years

Despite "almost" finding reconciliation with business life at a store, French was enthralled by the sensational California Gold Rush; sailing:[3]

...from Sag Harbor Feb. 8, 1849, in the ship Salina, with ninety adventurous comrades, French reached San Francisco exactly six months later to acquire and lose half a dozen fortunes in less than five years.

At that time French was as rugged, strong, and dauntless as any of the wild spirits with whom he associated, and no venture inspired him with fear or any regard for consequences, while his entire career in California was unsullied. He took a hand at everything that promised reward, from working on Denison's Exchange to gold mining expeditions in whaleboats, and he lost one day to gain all back in another.

The New York Times, February 4, 1896

Among ventures, French kept a hotel in San Francisco, bought and equipped a vessel, established gold mine express lines, and conducted storekeeping.[3]

Return to New York, marriage, political beginnings

In 1854, French returned yet again to Sag Harbor, establishing the H & S. B. French mercantile business.[3] The following year, he married the former Mary Ann Hand, who died a decade later; French would remarry in 1867 to the former Julia Prentis of New-London, Connecticut,[3] two decades his junior.

French began as an affiliate of the Whig Party, though subsequently joined the newly established Republican Party.[3] Years later, when Joseph H. Goldsmith resigned from the position of Suffolk County Treasurer in 1868, French was appointed to the post, serving until 1874.[3] The same year, French ran in the midterm elections for U.S. House of Representatives from the state's first congressional district,[4] though lost to Democratic opponent Henry B. Metcalfe by around 1,200 votes during the Democratic-friendly election cycle.[3] He sought the county treasurer position again the following year, though faced defeat by a drastically narrow margin of only 12 votes.

In the 1872 U.S. presidential election, French was a delegate to the Republican National Convention which renominated President Ulysses S. Grant to head the party ticket and replaced Schuyler Colfax with Henry Wilson as the running mate.

Regular Republican machine politics

Stalwart Republicans



Other members:

Related topics:

By the mid-1870s, French's rise in Republican politics led to befriending prominent state party leaders such as Thomas Murphy, Roscoe Conkling, and future vice president Chester A. "Chet" Arthur.[3] In 1876, he was appointed Appraiser of the Port of New York by President Ulysses S. Grant, whereupon his entry into metropolitan politics began an identification with the party's Stalwart faction–according to The New York Times:

Hayes shut out many Stalwart Republicans from federal patronage.
His chief mentors in this new field were Gen. Arthur, Thomas Murphy, De Witt Clinton Wheeler, Jacob Hess, and Roscoe Conkling.

The New York Times, February 4, 1896

During the presidency of Republican Half-Breed favorite Rutherford B. Hayes, French, along other Stalwart officeholders of patronage-controlled seats such as Chester Arthur, was ousted by the Administration. However, in early 1879, a "scheme" successfully installed French into a police board—a coalition of machine-aligned aldermen from both the Republican and Democratic aisles successfully nominated him as Police Commissioner, where he was described as:[3]

...easy going, and so generous to his friends in the matter of appointment as to escape suspicion that has attached to other officials.

The New York Times, February 4, 1896

As police commissioner, French was subject to controversy over his failure to send inspectors to a general election, and also faced accusations by the mayor of failing to maintain street cleanliness.[3] Conkling, David D. Field, and Col. George Bliss defended him, and a letter by the mayor to Governor Alonzo B. Cornell was disregarded.

During the 1880 U.S. presidential election, French took part in the Republican National Convention as a Stalwart delegate backing the nomination of former president Ulysses S. Grant for an unprecedented, nonconsecutive third term, as listed among the "Old Guard" 306 by Thomas C. Platt in the latter's autobiography published decades later in 1910.[5]

Arthur abandons the Stalwart faction

Following the assassination of President James A. Garfield by Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally ill self-professed "Stalwart of the Stalwarts," ascendant Stalwart successor Arthur angered his old faction associates by expediently declining to reward them with patronage out of fear that he would face the wrath of public backlash kindled against the faction. Some contemporaries of the era speculated that the rift between French and Arthur was due to a request by the former for the appointment of Collector of the Port of New York, though The New York Times noted the factually incorrect nature of the claim.[3]

“Proxy” incident

W. H. Robertson was furious at French for propagating a forged letter.

In September 1882 amidst the state's gubernatorial election that year, the Republicans were divided once again between the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions; Judge Charles J. Folger was the candidate of the former.[3] French claimed that William H. Robertson, a prominent figure among the Half-Breeds, sent him the following telegram:

Hon. W. H. Robertson:

It is of utmost importance that you come here on the 3:30 train. State Committee meets here to-night. Answer you will come.


During the committee meeting, the following telegram was handed:

The Hon. S. B. French, Grand Union Hotel, Saratoga:

Please act as my proxy at the meeting of the committee, and oblige,

W. H. Robertson.

The Stalwart Folger was subsequently nominated by a very narrow margin due to French's perceived eligibility as a proxy; one member of the Half-Breeds "followed what he believed to be an example set by Judge Robertson."[3] However, it was soon unearthed that the letter was a fraud;[2][6][7] Robertson angrily responded:

Gen. James W. Husted, Saratoga:

Stephen B. French has no authority, and never had, to represent me in the State Committee. His unauthorized appearance was an insult to the Westchester delegates and a fraud upon me. It is machine politics all over again.

W. H. Robertson.

An investigation and "threats of criminal prosecution" were soon launched against French, who claimed innocence, having been deceived and acting in sincere good faith.[8] No penalizing action materialized; Despite the established nature of forgery, the authorship of the fake letter was never determined.[3]


On February 3, 1896, French committed suicide, shooting himself through the heart.[3] A family member commented:

I cannot believe that French was a suicide. I now know how he loved and revered his wife, and he would not have left her alone in this world. I hate just as much to believe that he was deprived of reason. Never in his life did anything that he ever did indicate that this could be. He had been unfortunate to an exasperating degree, but I know that, had he lived, plans that he had well laid would have brought him a large amount of money to a certainty.

—Relative of S. B. French via The New York Times, February 4, 1896

The funeral was held three days later, "conducted with the utmost privacy"; the rituals were read by Rev. Gouverneur Morris Wilkins of St. Andrew's Protestant Episcopal Church, described by The New York Times as "an intimate friend of the family."[9] The only attendees were the late French's immediate family members and several associates. French's body was transported to his home town of Sag Harbor, where he is interred.


  1. Stephen Bull French (1829–1896). Find a Grave. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Broxmeyer, Jeffrey D. (August 14, 2020). Electoral Capitalism: The Party System in New York's Gilded Age, p. 203. Google Books. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 February 4, 1896. S. B. FRENCH SELF SLAIN; Former Police Commissioner Found Dying In His Room at Home. POSSIBLY AS ACCIDENT, SOME TIME His Career as a Country Merchant, a Forty-Niner, and a Politician—Active in the Affairs of This City. The New York Times. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  4. Index to Politicians: Fremstad to Frentz. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  5. Platt, Thomas C. (1910). The Autobiography of Thomas Collier Platt, p. 119. Google Books. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  6. UC Southern Regional Library Facility (1882). Political Pamphlets, 1876–1888: Issue 2, p. 8. Google Books. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  7. Josephson, Matthew (1966). The Politicos, 1865–1896, p. 335. Google Books. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  8. Harvard University (1883). The School Herald: Vol. 2, p. 146. Google Books. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  9. February 7, 1896. Last Rites over Stephen B. French. The New York Times. Retrieved May 25, 2023.