Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

George B. Cortelyou (1903–1904): Secretary of Commerce and Labor

George Bruce Cortelyou was born in New York City on July 26, 1862, graduating from the State Normal School of Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1882 and from Georgetown University Law School in 1895. He began his career as a stenographer and typist with the U.S. Customs service. Cortelyou served a clerk in the postmaster general's office in 1891, later moving to the White House in 1895 as stenographer to President Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland recommended Cortelyou to his successor, President William McKinley, who made Cortelyou his assistant secretary in March 1897. Cortelyou then became secretary to the President in 1900 and remained in that position following McKinley's assassination. But Cortelyou would be more than just a secretary to Theodore Roosevelt -- he became the President's most trusted and intimate advisor.

After Congress established the Department of Commerce and Labor as a ninth cabinet department, Roosevelt named Cortelyou its first secretary in 1903. Cortelyou resigned in June 1904, to become chairman of the Republican National Committee and to manage Roosevelt's 1904 reelection campaign. Roosevelt named Cortelyou postmaster general at the start of his new administration in March 1905. Cortelyou perfected the free rural mail delivery system and reduced the postal deficit to the lowest point in years.

He stepped down as postmaster general in March 1907 to become secretary of the treasury. In that position, Cortelyou presided over the economic panic of 1907, realizing that Treasury did not have the power to maintain economic stability; at the same time, he affirmed the Treasury's role in protecting the banking system.

Cortelyou also advocated the creation of a central banking system and increasing the money supply. These ideas bore fruit with the passage of the 1907 Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which eventually created the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Cortelyou remained in TR's cabinet until the end of the administration, after which he became head of the Consolidated Gas Company. George Cortelyou died in New York City on October 23, 1940.