On September 25, 1933, less than a year into his second term as governor of New Mexico, my great-great-uncle Arthur Seligman died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. After lying in state in the state capitol, he was buried on September 27, 1933, in the Fairview Cemetery in Santa Fe. My great-grandmother Eva, his sister, traveled from Philadelphia to attend his funeral as she had done in January, 1931, for his first inauguration. (“Late Governor Lies in State at the Capitol,” Las Vegas Daily Optic (September 27, 1933), pp. 1, 5)
Although certainly Arthur Seligman had his political enemies, the opinions expressed about him in numerous sources recognized that he was an effective leader, an able businessperson, and a successful politician.
The Clovis New-Journal wrote on September 26, 1933, p.2:
To select just a few highlights from this editorial (which is hard to read, but I thought worth reproducing for those who want to try), the Clovis opined:
No man has ever had a more comprehensive understanding of the politics of this state than he, nor has any man ever attained the leadership that linked more completely the eastern and western sides. This he accomplished through what often brought him criticism as a Democrat—a guiding hand in both democratic and progressive republican ranks….
He was a tireless man; one who drove himself at a terrific pace, and to this very fact may be charged his death….He worked until midnight nearly every night, and was at his office again by 10 o’clock in the morning, ever driving himself to the utmost of his strength.
The Deming Headlight also praised him, writing on September 29, 1933, p. 2:
In the Dictionary of American Biography, he is described as follows:
Suave, fastidious in dress, aristocratic in taste but democratic in policy, always prominent in social life, he sought and attained a large measure of power through business and political channels. Intensely loyal to his numerous friends and an enemy to be feared, for more than a quarter of a century he had few peers in Democratic circles of the Southwest. The strong position of the Democratic party in New Mexico at the time of his death was largely due to his long, shrewd, and able leadership.
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (Charles Scribner & Sons 1935), located at http://www.mocavo.com/Dictionary-of-American-Biography-Volume-16/114492/584
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency provided a deeper and more personal look at the life of Arthur Seligman:
A mild manner man was Arthur Seligman, pioneer builder of his native state, New Mexico, one-time Mayor of one of its leading cities, Santa Fe, and since 1931 its Governor. His sudden and untimely death last Monday came as a shock to all who knew him.
Stately in appearance, democratic in demeanor, firm in his convictions, determined in his action, Seligman was not only New Mexico’s favorite son, but also an exemplary figure in American civic and political life. His rise to the highest position of honor and responsibility in the State where he lived virtually all his life, the state to which he contributed so many lasting monuments, was reflective of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow citizens. Though always gentle, he invariably dealt emphatically with those who would practice abuse in public office. In the government of his state he had no time for those who would see in political activity an opportunity for personal gain. He viewed public service as a privilege coming with American citizenship and felt that every one should accept this service in the spirit of a sacred trust. ….
The JTA also commented on Arthur’s religious identity:
Though distant from Jewish communal life. Seligman always evinced a deep interest in the affairs of his people. He kept in touch with Jewish activity and cooperated in many causes. There are only a handful of Jews in New Mexico, yet when he was candidate for the office of governor he had the Ku-Klux-Klan to deal with. These conducted a whispering campaign against him. This was his first encounter with anti-Semitism and upset him quite a bit. However, his standing in the community and his splendid record of achievement were too much for the Kluxers. His election as the first Jew to hold that office in New Mexico also helped to crush the Kluxers in the State. His sudden death last Monday is a distinct loss for he was a credit to his country and his people.
I had wondered whether there was any anti-Semitism underlying the attacks against him, and although I certainly did not find anything in the newspaper articles that expressly suggested that as a motivation behind those who criticized him, given the times and the location, there undoubtedly must have been many in New Mexico who were uncomfortable at best with the idea of a Jewish governor. Despite that, Seligman was twice elected to the office.
Addressing the question of Arthur’s religious affiliation, Henry J. Tobias wrote in A History of the Jews in New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press 1990), pp. 160-161:
Though clearly of Jewish parentage, Governor Seligman’s religion at the time of his death is a matter of some debate. Frankie Lacker Seligman, the governor’s wife, belonged to the Episcopal church, and the son born to them in 1898 [Otis] was christened there. … Upon his death, an Episcopal service for the dead was read at the House of Representatives. At the Fairview Cemetery, however, the Masonic ritual was performed. Given the uncertainty of the governor’s religious identity, it would be presumptuous to define it for him. His family background and early life, however, place his career clearly within the framework of the history of the Jews of New Mexico.
Although he was not an observant Jew and did not marry a Jewish woman or raise his children as Jews, he is still always identified as Jewish on various lists and other sources. (E.g., City of Albuquerque website here ; Wikipedia article on Arthur Seligman at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Seligman ; list of Jewish governors in Jews in American Politics (Louis Sandy Maisel, Ira N. Forman, Donald Altschiller, Charles Walker Bassett, editors) (2001), p. 465. As is often the case, it doesn’t matter what you do or believe or who you marry. Once a Jew, always a Jew in the eyes of the much of the world.
Having now read so much about him after years of only knowing that I had some distant relative who had once been the governor of New Mexico, I now have great admiration for what he accomplished in his life. He had the benefit of growing up as the son of a very successful merchant, his father Bernard, who also was his role model for public service. His mother Frances Nusbaum Seligman was known as a gentle, kind and good woman. He had three older siblings who must have doted on him; clearly his older sister Eva and he were very devoted to each other, traveling across the country to be with each other. He had the benefit of a Swarthmore education and a business education. There is no question that Arthur Seligman’s story is one that started with many advantages; it’s not a rags to riches story or the story of an immigrant achieving the American dream.
But it is nevertheless a remarkable life. He could have taken the easy way—lived on the family’s wealth and remained a merchant or a banker and had a very comfortable life. But he chose instead to serve his city as mayor, his party as chair, and his state as governor. He faced some hostile opposition and apparently attacks by the KKK; he was referred to as Little Arthur in some news reports, mocking his small stature. He was accused of being a greedy banker, undoubtedly a disguised anti-Semitic remark. Yet he defeated his well-known Republican opponents, including one former governor, twice in races for the governor’s seat despite being a Jewish man from a state with almost no Jewish population.
As governor he somehow both cut the size of government and the tax rate while also instituting some important social reforms like vocational education and unemployment relief. He faced a potentially violent strike by miners and a personal threat of kidnapping his granddaughter. If he had not died in September, 1933, he might have been named a US Senator from New Mexico. Who knows how far he could have gone or what else he might have accomplished?
Arthur Seligman’s story is the story of a man whose father came from a tiny town in Germany to a frontier town in New Mexico and became a successful American merchant. It is the story of a boy who must have been grateful for the opportunities that America, New Mexico, and Santa Fe had afforded his family. He took those opportunities and returned the gifts by working hard for the city, state, and country that had given so much to him and his family.