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The Early Career of Mayor Frank Hague

Chapter 4 - Hague’s Career at its Nadir
Part 1

By Mark S. Foster

Copyright 1967

Web version, edited by GET NJ.
Copyright 2002

It was stated in the introduction that Frank Hague patterned himself closely after Woodrow Wilson’s progressive image. Certainly the two shared common qualities. Both were extremely skillful politicians despite the fact that they had basically cold personalities. Both men were generally skillful in manipulating people for their own ends, Wilson’s later failure at Versailles notwithstanding. However, neither would have been pleased to admit of these similarities, as they soon grew to detest each other. In spite of this, Wilson’s rise to power had a profound positive influence on Hague’s career. Had circumstances been slightly different, Hague’s rise to power might have negatively affected Wilson’s rise. As events developed, Hague’s machinations caused Wilson a great deal of concern.

Wilson had been elected Governor in 1910. New Jersey’s Democratic candidates for Governor had for years been hand picked dummies of James Smith, boss of Essex County. They had been of a similar cut of cloth. These candidates were mostly worn out party hacks, and they had experienced little success once past the Democratic primary. Smith and Davis were out looking for a winner with a new image. Currently the President of Princeton University, Wilson presented a veneer of respectability which was very appealing to these two men. Smith and Davis felt they could win the election with Wilson, yet still be able to control him once he attained the statehouse.1 Despite pre-nomination assurances to Smith that he would toe the line, Wilson immediately embarked upon a program of progressive reform which soon thrust him into the national spotlight. Wilson was not at all reticent about the possibilities of his future in politics. In June of 1910 he wrote to a Princeton classmate, “The question of my nomination for the governorship is mere preliminary of a plan to nominate me in 1912 for the presidency.” 2

The ivy-covered walls of Princeton were far removed from Frank Hague’s realm of experience. However, Woodrow Wilson was an unknown entity and Hague watched closely and with interest as Wilson grasped Smith’s power from him. All through the year 1912, Hague observed Wilson grow from state governor to presidential nominee to president elect. If Hague developed a dislike for Wilson, he could not help but be impressed by his successes. Hague spent a large part of the first half of 1912 trying to prevent Wilson’s nomination. Though he failed, Hague immediately searched for the reasons behind Wilson’s success.

In November 1911, Hudson County Democrats swept the municipal election, due to a large degree to the temporary alliance of dissident factions. Once safely past the election, the local Democracy had little reason to stay united, and a renewal of the old split seemed inevitable. However, if local leaders had little interest in a united Democracy, the exact opposite was true for Wilson. Three days after their election, Wilson summoned Hague and Wittpenn to Trenton, ostensibly to discuss county patronage in the state government.3 Evidence also shows that Wilson argued strongly in favor of a new city charter for Jersey City, to be governed under the provisions of the recently passed Walsh Act. Two weeks later, after vacationing in Virginia, Wittpenn returned to Jersey City full of praises for both Wilson and the new city charter. Of note was the fact that Wittpenn had been neutral to the charter before his talk with Wilson. Hague, on the other hand, remained silent.

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