Nelson A. Rockefeller

49th Governor, 1959 - December 18, 1973
Nelson A. Rockefeller

Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979) was elected governor four times before being appointed vice president by Gerald R. Ford after Richard Nixon resigned. As governor, he expanded the State University of New York into the largest public education system in the world. He also expanded the state parks and highway systems and created the Council on the Arts. Governor Rockefeller proposed the first statewide minimum wage law in the country and appointed an unprecedented number of women to head state agencies. He oversaw massive building projects including the Empire State Plaza, Lincoln Center, and the World Trade Center.

49th Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller
About the Artist

Paul Peter Kiehart (1913–2003) copied the portrait by Sandu Liberman (1923–1977). Kiehart studied at the Pratt Institute and Art Students League in New York City. Throughout his career, Kiehart was commissioned to copy many portraits, including one of Nelson Rockefeller’s grandfather, Nelson Aldrich.


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Historic Documents



Message to the Legislature on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968.
Message to the Legislature on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1968

New York’s reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was tumultuous, as in other parts of the country. Rockefeller had worked with King to ensure that New York was a leader in passing civil service legislation. In this message, he promoted the idea that King’s legacy could best be honored by deeds rather than words, and urged the Legislature to pass urban development and human rights initiatives that would use government as a means for social justice.

New York State Archives Collection

From The Encyclopedia of New York State

Rockefeller, Nelson A(ldrich) (b Bar Harbor, Maine, 8 July 1908; d New York City, 26 Jan 1979). Governor and U.S. Vice President.

The third of six children of John D. Jr and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Nelson was a grandson of John D. Rockefeller Sr, the founder of the Standard Oil Co and the nation’s first billionaire.

Raised primarily at his family’s estate in Pocantico Hills (Westchester Co) and in Manhattan, he attended the Lincoln School of Teachers College of Columbia University (1917–26), and in 1930 he received a BA from Dartmouth College and married Mary Todhunter Clark. Divorcing her in 1962, he married Margaretta Fitler “Happy” Murphy a year later.


Early Life

Rockefeller’s early career was built within his family’s enterprises and shaped by family influences. He was a member of the board of directors of Rockefeller Center (Manhattan) for more than a quarter of a century (1931–58), serving twice as chairman (1938–45; 1948–51). As a board member of Creole Petroleum (1935–40), a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, he gained experience in Latin America. The creation of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund with his brothers in 1940 was an early venture in philanthropy. Interest in the arts, encouraged by his mother, was manifest in almost four decades on the board of the Museum of Modern Art (1932–79; as president 1939–41, 1946–53). In 1957 he founded the Museum of Primitive Art to provide a venue for art created by the indigenous cultures of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

This collection was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976. The Rockefeller family’s long Republicanism notwithstanding, Pres Franklin D. Roosevelt made Rockefeller coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, the US Department of State’s center of anti-Nazi efforts in Latin America during World War II. After the war, Rockefeller was instrumental in helping bring the United Nations headquarters to New York City. Following the national Republican victory in 1952, he first served as the founding undersecretary of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and then, in 1954, became White House special adviser to Pres Dwight D. Eisenhower.



Rockefeller was nominated by his party for the New York State governorship in 1958 because Republican prospects against an incumbent Democrat did not seem promising, because he could finance his own campaign, and because he was able to win the early backing of key Republican leaders in his home county of Westchester.

With wealth neutralized as an issue in a “battle of millionaires,” Rockefeller prevailed against Gov W. Averell Harriman (1955–58) and became New York State’s 49th governor. Rockefeller was elected to four successive four-year terms, serving almost 15 years before his resignation on 18 Dec 1973; only George Clinton, the first governor, served longer.

More than any Republican governor before or since, Rockefeller was able to draw Democratic and independent support. In politics and government, he displayed enormous personal energy, magnetism, confidence, tenacity, and toughness. Reelection in 1962 and 1970 was relatively easy. He almost certainly squeaked through in a difficult four-way race in 1966 because of votes drawn from the Democratic candidate, Frank D. O’Connor, by the Liberal Party candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. Rockefeller became Governor at a time when New York State was still the nation’s commercial and industrial engine, and citizens’ belief in government as a positive force was strong. His approach as governor was to identify big problems, gather the best minds to craft solutions, have these solutions enacted into law, and then implement them on a large scale. In this way, he fashioned the crown jewel of his legacy, the SUNY system, while reassuring New York State’s powerful, prestigious independent colleges and universities—secular and religious-based—with the highest level of state assistance for nonpublic higher education in the nation. In the year before Rockefeller became governor, New York State budgeted $44.5 million for the state university.

In 1973, Rockefeller’s last year in office, SUNY state purposes budget was $464.4 million.

In addition, direct state aid to private colleges and professional schools totaled $69.6 million. Moreover, much of the $88.7 million in scholarship support provided by the state government indirectly flowed (as intended) to these institutions.

Other massive building projects throughout the state—among them the Empire State Plaza (1978) later named for him in Albany, Lincoln Center (1962), and the World Trade Center (1970) in New York City—cemented Rockefeller’s relationship with labor unions and other traditionally Democratic constituencies. At first, Rockefeller used a classic Republican pay-as-you-go financing for the state’s capital projects, though previously authorized debt was issued.

During his second term in 1965, voters were asked, as required by the New York State Constitution, to approve full-faith-and-credit borrowing.

By 1973 voter-authorized debt ($3.65 billion) was four times as great as when Rockefeller took office in 1959 ($897 million). Even before 1965, “back door” borrowing techniques were invented by the Rockefeller administration to finance his programs. Their use was expanded when voters failed to approve additional full-faith-and-credit borrowing at the polls. Rockefeller’s first budget as governor totaled just over $2 billion; his last $8.7 billion. The rate of spending increase in New York State during his tenure far exceeded that for the other industrial states.

In 1972 New York’s combined state and local taxes were one and one-half times the national average; per capita state taxes were seven times their 1957 level. The accumulated negative effects of Rockefeller’s taxing and borrowing to support his approach to government began to be felt late in his third term. Certainly, the burdens created by his policies deepened the difficulties New York State faced as a result of dramatic shifts in the national and world economies during the 1970s. But the governor received his greatest contemporary criticism for his handling of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, which resulted in 43 deaths.

To achieve his goals Rockefeller relied on the decisive, sometimes ruthless, use of the wealth, status, prestige, and private power inherent in being a Rockefeller in combination with his public power as governor. For much of his tenure the state legislature was controlled by his party, and he used his role as party leader to dominate it. Even in brief periods of Democratic control of one or both houses, Rockefeller had his way. In fact, the movement for legislative independence from the executive that flowered soon after his departure from Albany in 1973 was in substantial measure a reaction to his dominance. Rockefeller is widely regarded not only as one of the most important American governors of the 20th century, but also as a major national advocate for the states in the federal system.


Seeking the Presidency

A liberal Republican for much of his public career in the mold of his predecessor and two-time nominee for the US presidency, Gov Thomas E. Dewey (1942–54), Rockefeller failed in several attempts to capture that nomination himself. The extraordinarily hostile reception he received at the 1964 Republican convention marked the decisive rightward shift of the national Republican Party in the final third of the 20th century. A last-minute effort to gain the nomination in 1968 following the withdrawal of the incumbent Democrat, Pres Lyndon Johnson, from the race proved fruitless. On 19 Dec 1974, after he was nominated by Pres Gerald R. Ford and after stormy confirmation hearings in both houses of the US Congress, Rockefeller became the first vice president appointed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Vehemently opposed by the Republican Party’s conservative wing, Rockefeller was not renominated for vice president in 1976. He returned to private life and in 1978 started a company to market reproductions of items from his vast art collection.



Connery, Robert, and Gerald Benjamin. Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the Statehouse (Ithaca: Cornell Univ Press, 1979)
Kramer, Michael, and Sam Roberts. “I Never Wanted to Be Vice President of Anything” (New York: Basic Books, 1976)
Persico, Joseph E. The Imperial Rockefeller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982)
Reich, Cary. The Life of Nelson Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
Gerald Benjamin


Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 1324-25].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.