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Born in Santa Fe, NM, in 1873, Seligman served as governor the State of New Mexico from 1931 to 1933.
by Suzanne Stamatov
Arthur Seligman, born 14 June 1871, became Governor of New Mexico in January 1931. He was the first native-born, non-Hispanic, governor of Jewish ancestry. After serving his first two-year term, he successfully regained the post for a second term beginning in January 1933. In both instances, Seligman won the office with sweeping majorities. He died on 25 September 1933 after delivering an address to the New Mexico Bankers Association in Albuquerque. He was survived by his wife, Frankie Harris Seligman, and his two children.
As a child, Seligman attended public schools in Santa Fe and Philadelphia. In 1887 he completed a course at the Pierce College of Business in Philadelphia. He then received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1891. Upon his return to Santa Fe, he served as a bookkeeper at his family’s mercantile firm.
Bernard Seligman, Arthur Seligman’s father, joined the Seligman Brothers Company in 1856. The Seligman Brothers Company was a wholesale and retail dry goods mercantile established in 1852 by S. Seligman and Charles P. Cleaver. The business shipped merchandise from Kansas City across the Old Santa Fe trail using wagons drawn by oxen, mules, and horses. Once the goods arrived in Santa Fe, the business distributed them within a hundred mile radius of the capital. It also handled most of the banking and other financial transactions conducted in the Southwest. As a child, Arthur Seligman traveled the Old Santa Fe Trail in a covered wagon three times with his mother, Frances Nusbaum Seligman. Arthur became secretary and treasurer of The Seligman Brothers when it became incorporated in 1903. He subsequently served as president of the company until 1924.
In 1924, Seligman became president of the First National Bank of Santa Fe, a post he occupied until his death. Although Seligman assumed many responsibilities as a businessman, he still dedicated much time and effort to civic and public affairs. Between 1910 and 1920, Seligman served as County Commissioner. He ordered all of the old wooden bridges that crossed the Santa Fe River to be removed. He also helped erect the first modern jail. As mayor of Santa Fe from 1910 to 1912, Seligman paved some of the streets of Santa Fe with brick. He also ordered a survey of the city and an official map. Previous politicians had made public improvements by public subscription. Mayor Seligman, on the other hand, undertook such public works by levying a public tax if 300 or more people petitioned for such an improvement. Seligman brought it before the Legislature, and that governing body approved it and passed it into law.
Arthur Seligman also served on a number of committees and was a member of various clubs and associations. He was a trustee of the University of New Mexico and was chairman of the Educational Survey Commission of New Mexico from 1921-1923. He was a member of the New Mexico Board at the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo in 1900 and at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. He was chairman of the Road Board of Santa Fe County from 1914 to 1916. In 1917-1918 he was chairman of both the Santa Fe County Council of Defense and the Santa Fe County War Savings Board. He was a member of various organizations including the Montezuma Lodge, the Santa Fe Royal Arch, the Santa Fe Lodge, the Santa Fe Club, the Rotary Club, and the Historical Society of New Mexico. A life-long democrat, he served as county chairman, state chairman, national committeeman and delegate from New Mexico to several democratic national conventions. Arthur Seligman supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for the presidency. Seligman was democratic national committeeman. These various posts provided Seligman with experience as a leader and organizer. He also became familiar with the state’s political environment and was well-connected with various business leaders and politicians. Although he claimed that he always voted the straight democratic ticket, he made alliances and friendships with politicians across the political spectrum.
At the time of his inauguration as governor in 1931, Arthur Seligman spoke to the Tenth Legislature and emphasized his commitment to the state. In a populist tone, he asked the people to help him surmount the many pressing problems confronting the state. “The governor of the state, alone, can not produce the desired results. The legislature is not sufficient unto itself to accomplish them. The people of the state are the power behind the government. They are in fact the government. Those whom they elect are merely the administrative officers. When an administration takes the people into its confidence and councils there need be no fear of failure to accomplish that which is desired.”
In this inaugural address, Seligman also stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility. “No state should obligate itself to expend more money than can be reasonably expected from its citizens without hardship….In brief, New Mexico must live within her income and it is my intention, insofar as it is possible for me to do so, to see that she does.” In order to achieve this, he called for a tax commission of the state to evolve a fundamentally sound taxation and assessment plan. When Governor Seligman made his commitment for fiscal soundness at the state level, he had little idea that the state would be completely overwhelmed by the needs of the New Mexican citizens. As the country spiraled deeper into an economic depression, many New Mexicans began to struggle financially. The shrinking resources of the citizenry led to a shortfall in the state’s tax base leading to its inability to serve the state’s most vulnerable.
At the time Seligman assumed the governorship; few state officials understood the dire straits of the state economy and the vulnerability of New Mexicans. Prior to the Great Depression, seven to ten thousand villagers from the Middle and Upper Rio Grande valleys had migrated annually to labor in the beet and potato fields, in the mines and smelters, on the sheep camps, and on the railroads in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. As the depression gripped the west, these jobs disappeared, forcing the migrants to return to their overcrowded villages with scarce land and depleted soils.
Governor Seligman, like others, believed that the rural population subsisted and had little need for aid. To ascertain whether indigence existed, Seligman dedicated much of his first two years in office to gathering information about the economic problems confronting the citizenry. Seligman requested that Margaret Reeves, director of New Mexico’s Bureau of Child Welfare, undertake an evaluation of the relief needs in the state. She found them to be far greater than previously believed. In one rural county, the bureau’s field representative encountered women and children with nothing to wear but one flour sack apiece. Hundreds of children suffered from malnutrition and were emaciated. Due to the influx of unemployed migrant workers, the village coffers ran empty and had little to offer the desperate.
In early 1931, Seligman initiated the state’s first unemployment relief program. With three and a half million in federal aid funds and one and a half million dollars in federal building and forest program funds, he undertook a five million dollar highway construction project. The federal government advanced the funds to the state with the understanding that the state was to repay the loan at a later date. Unemployment at this time numbered between twenty and twenty-five thousand out of a workforce of approximately 142,000. The need for jobs was so great that the New Mexico Federation of Labor proposed limiting employment on government construction projects to one wage earner per family.
The governor, in 1931, accepted a paper from professor Brice H. Sewell, an industrial sculptor and director of Spanish handicrafts at the University of New Mexico, who outlined the prospects for vocational training in New Mexico. His recommendations became the foundation for a statewide program the following year. Governor Seligman appointed Sewell to the position of Supervisor of Trade and Industrial Education for the State Department of Vocation Education. The program called for the establishment of vocational schools in rural Hispanic communities where students would learn New Mexican crafts, how to successfully market their product, and how to initiate new self-sustaining local industries.
As the state coffers shrunk and drought gripped the land, the governor had to postpone many of his plans and concentrate on securing aid from the federal government. In a request for $240,000 in emergency aid from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), Seligman explained that the state could only provide aid for direct relief by having the people vote and pass a bond measure. Considering the impoverished condition of so many of the state’s voters, he doubted that such a measure would pass. He noted that a special election would be time consuming and expensive. He pled that his request be granted with “all possible haste.”
Governor Seligman welcomed the federal aid, seeing it not only as a way to employ out-of-work New Mexicans, but also as a way to improve New Mexico’s infrastructure. In a letter to Senator Bronson Cutting’s secretary, Edgar F. Puryear, dated 6 April 1933, Seligman wrote: “I believe it would be fine and we could kill two birds with one stone if we could have in our forests some road construction. I believe we could get plenty of men who would work for a dollar a day and their board and keep and not only relieve the unemployment, but at the same time, gain something that will be of great benefit in the state….Beside having the relief of employment and having a splendid road, those who would be employed would have the benefit of our wonderful climate and outdoor life.” In the same vein, by gubernatorial mandate, Seligman created the New Mexico State Park system to foster employment opportunities while preserving the state’s natural wonders.
Due to the many gubernatorial and business duties Governor Seligman undertook, he had little time to dedicate to personal pursuits. Nevertheless, he never ceased to pursue his interests in collecting historical artifacts, a passion he developed as a child. He said, “When a boy of twelve years of age, I was attracted to the Indians by their art, their picturesqueness and their love of color and harmony—I spent many of my vacation days among the Indians. In those days our means of travel were either by horse and buggy, or a buckboard drawn by a pair of good mules. Often I was scolded by my father when I would come home with some Indian artifacts, such as moccasins, bows and arrows, baskets and a blanket or two.” Seligman also collected paintings by Southwestern artists, santos, stamps, coins, and historical relics such as old stage coaches. His intense interest in collecting took him out of the business and governmental offices and into the homes of the common people where he shared their meals and received shelter.
Perhaps on these collecting forays Arthur Seligman learned the hopes and ambitions of the people of more humble origins and took them to heart. For regardless of his zeal to balance a budget, he believed that the institutions for the deaf, the blind, and the unfortunate should be fully funded. And during the Great Depression, he worked tirelessly to find funding so that New Mexicans could be employed.
Coan, Charles F. A History of New Mexico, Vol. III Chicago and New York: The American Historical Society, 1925.
Forrest, Suzanne. The Preservation of the Village: New Mexico’s Hispanics and the New DealAlbuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
Walter, Paul A.F. “Necrology,” New Mexico Historical Review 8 (October 1933): 306-316.
The Santa Fe New Mexican 27 September 1933.
Archival Sources, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Gov. Arthur Seligman Papers: Inaugural Address and Legislative Message, 1931, Box 8 Folder 205
Gov. Arthur Seligman Papers: New Deal Agencies, Civilian Conservation Corp., Reforestation Project, February-September 1933, Box 15, folder 422.